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A space shuttle's final mission: Atlantis opens to the public (+video)

The much-anticipated Atlantis exhibit - showcasing the last space shuttle to make a mission - will open at Florida's Kennedy Space Center on Saturday.

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The Atlantis exhibit cost about $100 million, culled together from borrowed Space Florida (the state's space infrastructure agency) funds and Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex revenue, and was some 10 years in development. The complex is already home to a child-friendly "Angry Birds" interactive exhibit, a space shuttle simulator experience, and the US Astronaut Hall of Fame. [Editor's note: An earlier version misstated the cost of the exhibit.]

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Atlantis was NASA’s fourth space shuttle, named after a boat that served as the primary research vessel for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts from 1930 to 1966. It made its first flight in October 1983 and went on to make some seven missions to the Russian space station, Mir.

And some three decades later, it was the last NASA space shuttle to make a mission: Atlantis’ final flight from the International Space Station to Kennedy Space Center in July 2011 brought the shuttle program to its official close, turning expensive space shuttle flight over to private developers and heralding a beginning to NASA’s most ambitious goals, like sending an astronaut to an asteroid and then to Mars.

“Mission complete, Houston,” Capt. Christopher J. Ferguson of the Navy, commander of the Atlantis for the last flight, said just after the shuttle landed. “After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history, and it’s come to a final stop.”

Atlantis arrived at the museum last November, after traveling 10 miles from the Vehicle Assembly Building – an infinitesimal distance in space, but a difficult one for a shuttle to make on Earth – and was removed from 16,000-square-feet of plastic shrink-wrap last month.

“We say this is her next mission,” Macy told Florida Today. “Her mission is to tell the story.”

“We don’t know really what’s next in terms of manned space flight,” he said. “Nobody’s absolutely sure, but what we do know is that this shuttle and this shuttle program got us to where we are today.”

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