HOUSTON — With the help of a 440-ton crane, the space shuttle replica Independence lifted off Thursday morning and landed safely on the back of a historic shuttle carrier Boeing 747.
Hundreds of people woke up early to make it out to Space Center Houston, 1601 NASA Pkwy, to watch 160,000-pound shuttle replica be mounted on the aircraft at about 8 a.m.
The replica, formerly used by NASA astronauts to train for shuttle missions, will be the center’s newest attraction and will give visitors a unique view of both the shuttle and the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.
Once it opens in 2015, visitors will be able to go inside both the 747 and the shuttle replica.
“It’s going to give people an up-close and personal look of a very high-fidelity shuttle cockpit, mid-deck and cargo bay,” said Richard Allen, director of Space Center Houston.
Pierre Mille, sales manager with Mommoet, the crane company that lifted the shuttle replica onto the Boeing 747, said this was a rather small job.
The company performs hundreds of lifts a year of far heavier equipment and structures at refineries, he said. But it had never lifted anything as unique as a shuttle replica.
“This is really different, of course,” Mille said. “This is priceless.”
Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa, a former astronaut, said the Independence would be a great reminder of the 135 NASA shuttle missions and a way for visitors to learn more about what comes next in space exploration.
“It’s really near and dear everybody’s heart,” Ochoa said. “And we want to be able to share that story.”
Ryan Sperry was at the Independence lift with his two sons — Chase, 7, and Brock, 5. He said he would be back to explore the exhibit with his children next year.
“It’s just such an amazing monument,” he said.
He, like many at the event, said having the replica came with the benefit that visitors would be able to go inside and see and touch the interior of craft. The shuttles on display in other parts of the country will not be open to the public.
“It’s going to be neat because you can actually tour through it,” Sperry said. “It’s not a static display like some of the others.”
When Sperry and his children come back to visit the exhibit, they won’t be the only ones.
Bill Staples, president of the University of Houston Clear Lake, said 16 million people have visited Space Center Houston since 1992. About 800,000 guests walk through the doors of the center every year, he said.
The center has been labeled the “big draw” and one of the top destinations for this region, he said. The addition of the shuttle replica was a game-changer that would be a further international attraction, he said.
“The big draw is about to get much bigger,” Staples said.
At a Glance
WHAT: Space Center Houston still is raising money to pay for Independence project
HOW MUCH: The center is attempting to raise the final $2.2 million of the total $12 million project
HOW TO DONATE: Visit the center’s website at www.spacecenter.org/giving