CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- For nearly three decades, the space shuttle Atlantis hoisted astronauts upon the shoulders of giants allowing America to live and work in earth orbit.
This weekend, the nation returns the favor as the Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Center hoists Atlantis upon America's shoulders to celebrate her countless achievements in advancing humankind in space.
Nearly two years following her final space flight, she now takes center ring of a new $100 million facility for admirers to view up close.
Nestled inside the Atlantis Exhibit on America's Space Coast, NASA's fourth space worthy orbiter now rests in a 90,000 square-foot attraction, raised and tilted 43.21 degrees to the floor.
The unusual tilt is in countdown fashion, "4, 3, 2, 1 Lift-off", and allows visitors to view her belly as well as look deep inside her payload bay as a 50-foot robotic arm extends outward just as she looked as she through space.
"The space shuttle Atlantis attraction not only gives visitors the chance to get nose to nose with Atlantis, it gives them a chance to see what it's like to be an astronaut," states the chief operating officer of the Visitor's Center Bill Moore. "We're proud to launch Atlantis on its new mission, to educate and inspire a future generation of space explorers."
Atlantis' celebratory grand opening on June 29 marks the final chapter of America's space shuttle fleet.
Atlantis joins surviving sister ships Discovery (Air and Space in Dulles, VA), Endeavour (California Science Museum in Los Angeles) and NASA's air flown test orbiter Enterprise (Intrepid Museum in New York City) on display inside public museums.
A unique treat for most, Atlantis is the only orbiter to have an open payload bay.
During her storied career, Atlantis carried inside her 60-foot long bay laboratory modules, military satellites, sections of the International Space Station and the platform and equipment to dock and repair the Hubble Space Telescope.
Orbiter Vehicle 104, NASA's internal model number for Atlantis, lifted-off on her first space flight in October 1985 on a very secretive military mission STS-51J. Nine minutes after launch, the entire mission went into a news black out as her crew prepared to release a spy satellite into a high orbit.
After four days in space, she returned for a landing at Edwards, AFB in California. She was then quickly turned around for her second flight just six weeks later.
In fact, five of her first first ten missions were dedicated military flights for the Department of Defense, and she was labeled "Battlestar Atlantis" around the space center.
She was the first shuttle to dock to a space station during STS-71, marking the first time that a space shuttle actually went somewhere.
Atlantis docked to Russia's space station Mir in summer of 1995 to deliver supplies to the aging outpost, and bring home NASA astronaut Dr. Norman Thagard who had spent three months aboard.
In all, Atlantis flew 33 of NASA's 135 space shuttle missions, including the last ever shuttle mission STS-135 in July 2011.
"Kennedy Space Center is more than just a final destination for Atlantis, it is, and always has been, home," Moore adds as he reflects on the shuttle's history.
The new exhibit also features a mock-up of the Hubble telescope, and includes interactive computer screens to allow visitors to "experience what it's like to perform tasks on a spacewalk", states the visitor's center.
Twenty-one computer consoles throughout the building will simulate a space station docking by the shuttle; use of her robotic arm to retrieve a payload from Atlantis' bay; and to land Atlantis back at America's Spaceport - the Kennedy Space Center.
"When word spreads about just how compelling and how unique this attraction is, folks from all over the globe are going to be adding space shuttle Atlantis to their bucket lists," Moore adds.
(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. He covered many of Atlantis' missions from Kennedy Space Center. Follow his updates via Twitter @SpaceFlight360.)