A first look at Space Shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- As NASA redefines itself with missions to asteroids and, someday, Mars, the public is about to get its first up-close look at the workhorse of the American space program.

On Saturday, thousands of people are expected to visit the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex after Space Shuttle Atlantis, a new exhibit about the legacy of Atlantis and the space shuttle program, opens to the public.

"I think people are going to be amazed at how large this spacecraft is," Wendy Lawrence, a former Mission Specialist said. "This was really an amazing idea that thousands of people worked incredibly long hours to turn into reality. And, it's a marvel of engineering."

Atlantis is the centerpiece of a $100 million, 90,000 square foot exhibit that showcases its history and inspires the imagination.

Sixty interactive exhibits and a shuttle simulator were built for the experience.

"People get to see Atlantis the way we only saw her," James Reilly, a former Mission Specialist said. "What we'd like to do is ignite that spark in the kids. You know, that next set of explorers coming through the doors here, when they see it, they'll realize, "This is what we did with the 20th Century. The 21st Century is yours." Where are you guys going to go?"

In its more than twenty years in space, the crews of Atlantis visited the Russian space station Mir, serviced the Hubble Space Telescope and helped build the International Space Station.

Lawrence, who flew on Atlantis four times, said the exhibit was a fitting tribute.

"This is a great way to say, "Thank you shuttle team for taking, really, an audacious idea and turning it into reality and running a really successful program for thirty years," Lawrence said. "For the people who have never had an opportunity to be this closely associated with the space program, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them."

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex opens to the public at 9:30am on Saturday.

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PHOTOS: Shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center (http://bit.ly/16FpWmB)

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