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The space shuttle Atlantis detached itself from the International Space Station today. The final shuttle mission is nearing its end. Atlantis will return to Earth on Thursday if all goes well. Next, workers prepare it for public display. They are already prepping two other shuttles to become museum pieces. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce got a look inside the shuttle Discovery at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: My rings are taped to my fingers, my glasses are tethered to my head, my pockets are emptied of loose change. All of this is required before I'm escorted out for a rare tour of Discovery.
Unidentified Woman: If you're here for the 10:00, I need you taped and tethered. You've got about two minutes before we head down to the bus.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: We ride over to a secure hangar, where the shuttles are processed after each flight. We go inside.
Unidentified Man #1: Here, let's go in right after these guys.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The big spaceship sits here, with its landing gear down, somewhere. Discovery is surrounded by so many platforms and pipes and equipment, at first I can't even see it. I climb some stairs, turn a corner, and I'm suddenly right next to its nose cone. I almost don't recognize it, because big pieces of it are missing.
Ms. STEPHANIE STILSON (Shuttle Processing Office): It is different for a lot of folks here to see it looking like that.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Stephanie Stilson is in charge of ground operations for Discovery, a job she's had for over a decade. She says as they get this ship ready for the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, they're taking out some parts that normally don't get removed, like from inside the nose cone. But a lot of the processing feels routine and she likes to pretend that it is.
Ms. STILSON: The work that we're doing is very similar to the work we would do if it was going to fly again. So someone like me who doesn't really want to address the fact that these vehicles aren't going to fly again, it's kind of nice to just let yourself get absorbed into the work.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says her team is going over the ship, getting rid of toxic materials.
Ms. STILSON: So hypergols, cryogenics, Freon, ammonia, pyrotechnics, all those things have to be removed or saved so that we know we won't have any incidents at the Smithsonian.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So if you just plopped it down in the Smithsonian, people would start fainting around it? Is that the idea?
Ms. STILSON: Not quite that drastic, but we would not be able to just plop it down. In fact, some folks said, well, why don't you just land it in D.C. and then you don't have to worry about all this time to process it. Well, you can't do that. The minute the vehicle lands on the runway, it's a hazardous vehicle. It has to be handled very carefully. So there are things that can off gas, that could make you feel sick and so forth. There are things that could leak and drip on your skin and cause damage. So that's what we're taking care of right now.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I walk on a raised platform along the side of the ship, right past the big black letters that say United States. I go down a staircase and I'm under Discovery's belly. I look up and see a vast expanse of heat shield tiles. The square tiles are white with some gray in them. It looks like a marble ceiling. Usually any damaged tiles will be repaired, but this time they'll be left as they are.
Another staircase takes me up to the rear of the ship. You can see the guts of the spacecraft through three giant circular openings, empty spots where the massive engines used to sit. Technician Jack Colella says the engines are taken out after every flight, for inspection. This time, though, they aren't going back in. They're being replaced with fake lookalikes.
Mr. JACK COLELLA (Technician): From the outside, looking at it at the museum, it'll look like the engines are fully installed.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Colella has been with the shuttle program for 23 years. He says working on Discovery feels different now.
Mr. COLELLA: But we knew this was coming. We've just got to get her ready and let her rest in the Smithsonian once we get her there.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: To go inside Discovery, first you walk through an enclosed white passageway set up next to the ship. The walls of this entry room are covered with black marker, the signatures of people who have visited the shuttles in this hanger over the years.�
Unidentified Man #2: Dignitaries, celebrities, and our most important celebrities are our workers, and their signatures are here too.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: An employee named Jeff Wheeler is standing next to what looks like a hole in the wall - a little bigger than a manhole cover. This is the side hatch.�
Mr. JEFF WHEELER: It's where the crew goes in and out.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I have to climb awkwardly onto a platform and then scoot feet first into the body of Discovery.�
Upstairs is the flight deck, a cramped gray cockpit completely covered with buttons and switches. The blue seats for the commander and pilot look thin and hard. Below it is the middeck - a windowless space about the size of an office cubicle. During a mission, the astronauts sitting here would have even less room - this space would be crammed with lockers full of food and clothes.
Mr. CHARLES BELL (Technician): You have their sleeping bags. You have bags of gear that get stowed back on the back wall there. So this area, once you get ready for flight, is about a third of what you see right now.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's technician Charles Bell. He's worked with the shuttle since 1988. He says at the moment Discovery still feels ready to fly. He expects things to get emotionally more difficult as the ship gets closer and closer to being ready for the museum.
Mr. BELL: Especially once it gets on display, it'll be lifeless. Right now, it's still got some life in it. So it'll be hard seeing them dead and gone, so to speak.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Like the shuttles, Bell is about to retire. He's one of thousands of people leaving the space program. If they do want to see the shuttles again, they'll have to visit as tourists, just like everyone else.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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