This is not a rendering. It is a launching pad in the New Mexico desert for rocket planes that will send you into space for $200,000. It opens later this year.
At dawn one morning last November—just as the edge of Earth comprising Florida spun into the field of light bursting from roughly 93 million miles away—she emerged one last time from the monstrous doors of the Vehicle Assembly Building, twelve stories long but dwarfed. This was what had been billed as the “final mission” of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, a 9.8-mile journey to her final resting place at the Kennedy Space Center’s visitors’ complex. That Atlantis’s journey would begin at the VAB—525 feet tall, the largest single-story structure in the world, having sprouted a half-century ago in the frenzy of the space race, as stupendous an achievement as each of the space-faring rockets that would be assembled inside it—multiplied the emotion.
Very far away, still sheathed in its massive launch-apparatus exoskeleton, one could make out Launchpad 39A, site of the historic Apollo 11 moonwalking blastoff, where Atlantis had also taken off to orbit the Earth, once more and finally, in 2011, marking the last in NASA’s 30-year-old shuttle program. The other surviving orbiters, Discovery and Endeavor, had already completed their extraordinary processionals to museums in northern Virginia and Los Angeles (the latter requiring hundreds of trees cut and roadways reconfigured to accommodate its size). A throng of personnel was on hand, those who had built and maintained and flown her, including some of the 7,000 whose jobs were ending with the program. With signs and T-shirts that read WE LOVE YOU ATLANTIS and THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES and WE MADE HISTORY, they fell in behind her. Many wiped away tears as she crept along at two miles an hour, past the dense, still swampland that had, many times before, exploded along with her, the alligators and pigs and birds flushing at her ignition, the fish heaving themselves from the water, the light from the trail of fire flashing from their scales.
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