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In Depth - March 2016

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a … Visitor Center?

Space Center Houston’s new attraction housed in shuttle replica, Boeing 747

by Prasana William

All photos courtesy of Space Center Houston

What better place to tell the story of NASA’s shuttle carrier program than in the aircraft itself? Space Center Houston (SCH) took that approach when creating the latest addition to its nonprofit visitor center. The complex retrofitted the interior of NASA 905, the first Boeing 747 to be used as a shuttle carrier aircraft (SCA), to contain exhibits on the shuttle program, the development of the plane, and topics concerning science, technology, engineering, and math.

A space shuttle replica was mounted to the top of the plane and the coupled aircraft appear just as they would while in transit. The SCA and space shuttle replica are part of the eight-story Independence Plaza, the largest addition to the complex since 1992.

“We’ve accomplished what’s never been done before,” says Paul Spana, the exhibits manager for the nonprofit Space Center Houston museum. “We developed a one-of-a-kind exhibit complex, the only place in the world where visitors will be able to enter the first shuttle carrier aircraft, NASA 905, and the high-fidelity shuttle replica Independence.”

The shuttle replica traveled 1,275 miles from Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida to Houston. The vehicles were attached and retrofitted to house the exhibits, and include an outdoor tower with a queue area and elevators. (For more on designing in unusual spaces, see the next page). In the shuttle, guests see the flight deck, mid-deck, payload bay, and exhibits. The plane is home to seven areas of interactive displays and artifacts on the history of the shuttle program, and development of the SCA, including the challenges NASA faced.

“Rather than design an exhibit solely about the SCA, we decided to use the large interior space of the plane to tell the story about the whole shuttle program,” says Spana. “We look at the SCA and shuttle as an extension of the Starship Gallery located inside the [existing] building.” The Starship Gallery offers a timeline of the United States’ experiences in human space exploration, told through artifacts. The center created a storyline about the shuttle program that extends out to the SCA and shuttle facility.

Independence Plaza also includes a look behind the scenes of the Johnson Space Center, including the food lab, mission control, and the robotics lab.

5 Tips for Working in Unusual Spaces

Space Center Houston faced some interesting challenges while building the exhibits inside the aircraft and space shuttle. Here are five lessons learned from constructing an attraction in a difficult space:

Odd spaces require special planning for underground utilities. Start early to plan where and how underground utilities will run throughout the site. The odd area Space Center Houston worked with required special attention to many existing utilities (power and drainage, for instance) that had to be worked around.

Use those odd spaces to your advantage. Instead of building a separate structure for a queue, the facility was able to use the landings of the tower as a space for guest lines. It could easily queue more than 300 people at one time. 

Plan early for how people will use spaces and pay special attention to traffic flow. The best way for people to experience the exhibit was to start six stories up at the top of the tower. Moving crowds up required two elevators and a set of wide stairs for two-way traffic. Consider trouble areas such as bottlenecks. Pre-planning for heavy traffic requires a management plan using techniques such as timed ticketing. 

Consider special maintenance needs for your unusual space. Knowing the stacked shuttle and shuttle carrier aircraft would require ongoing maintenance, the sidewalk layout was designed to accommodate an 80-foot personnel lift to easily travel all around the space. 

Consider unusual infrastructure ­interior placement and requirements. Moving a Boeing 747 six miles down a highway was nothing compared to figuring out how to install air-conditioning units without lots of big equipment taking up valuable space. Odd-shaped and out-of-the way spaces were used to locate chillers and air-handling equipment. It was discovered early on that the 747 moves on windy days while the tower, of course, does not. Ridged pipes for different utilities required special flexible connections between the tower and the aircraft.