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Space shuttle exhibit opens at Air Force museum

With a 57-foot-vertical stabilizer reaching into the air inside the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, a 65-ton space shuttle mock-up was ready for launch Tuesday.

“Just add gas,” said Veit Von Parker, president, founder and CEO of Display Dynamics Inc., the Clayton company that built the $1.7 million exhibit for the world’s largest military aviation museum.

Nearly three years after NASA snubbed the museum for one of three retired shuttle orbiters, the exhibit officially opens Wednesday inside the cavernous Cold War Gallery, a temporary stop until the space attraction is relocated to a new $34.5 million hangar set to open in early 2016.

The walk-through, full-scale shuttle mock-up is built around a Crew Compartment Trainer hundreds of NASA astronauts trained in to master 2,000 cockpit controls and instruments prior to launch.

“We are going to see more visitors,” predicted museum director John “Jack” Hudson. “How many more, (I) can’t say for sure, but I can say it’s going to be significant.”

Von Parker and his Display Dynamics crew of eight spent 15 months designing, engineering, fabricating and building a payload bay and tail section among other pieces to recreate the scope and size of the shuttle.

“I think this is going to have a lot of appeal not just locally but even worldwide, because not everyone has a shuttle,” Von Parker said.

Inside the payload bay, a never-launched Teal Ruby satellite, with early 1980s-era missile launch detection sensors, sits inside a giant glass showcase. After the space shuttle Challenger exploded in January 1986, the satellite was put into storage and newer technology surpassed the satellite’s capabilities, said museum curator Doug Lantry.

Visitors can look into the shuttle cockpit and a mid-level deck. Eventually, the exhibit will display the shuttle’s heat resistant tiles, space suits, an airlock, and other space artifacts, said Cindy Henry, a museum aerospace educator. Next to the exhibit sits a science, technology, engineering and math “learning node,” or a 60-seat amphitheater-style classroom.

“Hopefully a lot of younger people will take advantage of this resource here at the museum and begin to expand their horizons when it comes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” Von Parker said. “We’ve just let too much leave this country and I’m glad to see efforts like this hopefully to bring it back.”

NASA flew the Crew Compartment Trainer to the museum in August 2012 aboard the whale-shaped B377 SG Super Guppy from Ellington Field near Johnson Space Center in Houston.

James Free, director of the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, said the space agency’s decision to send the trainer to the museum acknowledged the Air Force’s significant contribution to the space shuttle program. Free attended a museum ceremony Tuesday to celebrate the exhibit’s public debut.

“The Air Force provided a number of pilots and commanders of the shuttle and the Crew Compartment Trainer was an integral part of their training,” he said in an interview. “The museum and the Air Force should be proud of the legacy that they’ve given to an incredible part of our history in the space shuttle program.”

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