Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit draws cheers and tears

By Allison Walker, Entertainment Reporter/Anchor
Last Updated: Wednesday, June 26, 2013, 5:45 PM EDT

When was the last time you went to an attraction or theme park and cried?

OK, you may have been 6 and got spooked by Disney's Haunted Mansion. Or, you welled up inside the American Adventure show, "We, The People" (it is just me?)

When a real-life astronaut wipes away a tear next to you, it only exaggerates the attraction's 'wow' moment. And that moment happens inside the brand new "Space Shuttle Atlantis" attraction inside the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Maybe it's the fact that the experience is devoted to NASA's 30-year Space Shuttle Program. Or perhaps it's that we're so darn proud of our smarty-pants rocket scientists for building some of the most complex things ever and launching them into space -- with people in them!

Whatever it is, seeing Atlantis -- nose-to-nose -- for the very first time is indeed an emotional moment. But imagine being retired astronaut Wendy Lawrence who lived in that thing for 11 days up in space.

"I think a lot of my emotions are the fact that, wow, I got to be a part of that," she told me.

I spent several hours with Captain Lawrence, a veteran of 4 space flights, during our sneak peek of Space Shuttle Atlantis. The tour began outside at an 18-story, full-length replica of the shuttle's external tank and solid rocket boosters.

Lawrence remembers looking up at the real deal back in '97, one day before she lifted-off.

"I never stopped thinking, 'Oh, my gosh, this thing is so incredibly huge,'" she said. "I cannot believe we were able to build a spacecraft that is this big and launch it in space."

The pre-show involves multimedia and cinematic presentations meant to build anticipation. They illustrate how the 30-year Space Shuttle Program evolved and the thousands of people who helped get five shuttles into space - Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor.

And then - you enter the "reveal" theater. It's like a cinedome, except it's not circular.

"It gives us 13 difference areas that we can actually project against," said Project Development & Construction Director, Tim Macy. "That gives you a different view from wherever you are in the [theater]. Plus it also allows us to work with the sound and bounce the sound around a little bit different. Those domes typically are a little more difficult in terms of getting the great experience."

As the musical score climaxes, shuttle Atlantis is revealed from behind a screen. People cheered. Then they gulped, tears running down their cheeks.

"Unbelievable. I just loved it," smiled Beverly Gosling, visiting from Colorado. "Awesome. Awesome! I just can't say enough about it."

When you exit the theater, you get so close to Atlantis that you can almost touch it. The payload bay doors are open and the robotic arm is extended, as they would be during a mission.

After catching your breath and snapping a zillion pictures, you still have 167 exhibits to check out. About one-third are interactive.

One of those is something you know you've thought about: How do astronauts, er, "go?" Yep, you can sit on the space toilet. And those other potty questions you're too embarrassed to ask also get answered.

Space Shuttle Atlantis celebrates its grand opening this Saturday, June 29. Nearly 40 NASA astronauts are expected to be there. You'll find out so much cool stuff from them, like what's on their iPod up in space. (Lawrence tells me she played Melissa Etheridge, Enya, and KD Lang while looking out the window at planet Earth).

If you're heading out to the KSCVC Saturday, festivities are open to guests with regular paid admission.