CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida — NASA's retired space shuttle Atlantis is a step closer to completing its final journey.
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex broke ground Wednesday for Atlantis' permanent home, a $100 million exhibit due to open in summer 2013. Schoolchildren waved red, white and blue Atlantis flags — 33 flags representing each of Atlantis' space missions — as state and local dignitaries joined former shuttle staff at the construction site.
The astronaut who commanded Atlantis' final spaceflight, Christopher Ferguson, told the more than 100 guests that Atlantis will serve as "a reminder of the limitless potential" of Americans and also inspire children, some of whom will become future space travelers.
Ferguson, who now works for Boeing on new space vehicles, made note of the effort to preserve the past while working toward the future: "I'd like you all to stay tuned as we turn to the next chapter of the journey that will never end."
Shuttle Discovery will actually be the first to ship out to museums. In April, it will head to the National Air and Space Museum's display hangar outside Washington. Shuttle Endeavour will travel to the California Science Center in Los Angeles in the second half of the year.
NASA's 30-year shuttle program ended last July with the voyage of Atlantis. Since then, workers have been getting them ready for display by draining hazardous fuel, disconnecting or removing some systems and replacing the main engines with replicas.
Delaware North Parks & Resorts, which runs the Kennedy visitor complex for NASA, used an industrial-size digger to unveil a huge picture of the planned exhibit hall. The six-story structure will feature two curved "wings" in orange and gold colors, representing the intense heat of re-entry.
Atlantis will be displayed as if flying in orbit, with the cargo bay doors open and the robot arm extended.
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex: www.kennedyspacecenter.com