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LYNN NEARY, HOST:
Space shuttle Atlantis has a new home at the Kennedy Space Center. After traveling 125 million miles in orbit, the shuttle is now on display about ten miles from where it launched and eventually landed on its final mission just under two years ago. Matthew Peddie of member station WMFE filed this report on the exhibit which opens today.
MATTHEW PEDDIE, BYLINE: Visitors to the new Atlantic exhibit walk into the building under a big orange external fuel tank which the shuttle rode into space. The tank's a replica but the shuttle inside is the real deal. The people who worked on the shuttle program, like retired technician Tom Boarman, are looking forward to reuniting with Atlantis.
TOM BOARMAN: Well, it will be a very familiar sight to me. I've seen it on the pad many times, all the shuttles.
PEDDIE: But only a handful of astronauts have seen Atlantis like this before, as though it's in orbit and so close you could almost reach out and touch it. Inside the hull, the shuttle looks like it's floating weightless against the dark walls and ceiling while a video showing the curve of the earth from space plays behind the towering tail fin.
Astronaut Jim "JR" Reilly took his first spacewalk in Atlantis in 2001. Seeing the display for the first time was emotional for him.
JIM REILLY: Because it took me back to that moment where I looked back and there's the Earth, and that is a pretty powerful moment, to see the earth and everything you know right there and it's flying behind Atlantis.
PEDDIE: Unlike the other retired orbiters on display in California and Virginia, Atlantis is tilted on an angle. You can see right inside the open cargo bay with its robotic arm extended, then walk around and look at the belly where reentry has scorched the thousands of grey-black thermal tiles. It's a view JR Reilly remembers well after returning from space.
REILLY: And it would still be hot, so you could put your hand up next to it and feel the heat radiating from the tiles and from the nose cap after we'd do our walk-around.
PEDDIE: Atlantis flew 33 missions, but it was built to fly 100 times, so this museum display is bittersweet for the people who worked and flew on the shuttle. The exhibit includes interactive displays. Visitors can crawl through a miniature model of the International Space Station or zip down a slide mimicking the shuttle's landing path.
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PEDDIE: It was stiff competition among museums for the retired orbiters after the shuttle program ended. Astronaut JR Reilly says the Kennedy Space Center is the right place for Atlantis.
REILLY: Oh, it had to be here. One of them had to be here because this is where they live.
PEDDIE: And this is where Atlantis will continue to live while NASA moves into a new era of space travel. For NPR News, I'm Matthew Peddie.
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