More than 40 astronauts greeted hundreds of guests to the grand opening of the $100 million Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on Saturday morning.
The opening ceremony took place in the shadow of a replica of the solid rocket boosters and fuel tanks that lifted all 135 shuttle missions into space from the Florida coast.
Among the dignitaries were Bob Crippen, who flew on the first shuttle in 1981, and Chris Ferguson and Sandy Magnus, who were aboard the final flight in July 2011.
"I couldn't be more proud of the display of Atlantis," said Bob Cabana, a former astronaut and current director of the John F. Kennedy Space Center.
"We think they did it right," he said, speaking for the astronaut corps.
Inside the 90,000-square-foot attraction, Atlantis is tilted at a 43-degree angle, simulating its flight position as it departed the International Space Station.
"She'll inspire a new generation of explorers," he said.
He also thanked the KSC work force and the residents of the Space Coast.
"This nation owes you a super debt of gratitude," he said.
Denise Likar and family dropped by the complex while on a six-hour layover between their Cape Canaveral-based cruise and a flight home to Orange County, Calif.
"I've been going through here going 'Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,' " she said.
"I know that this feat of being able to pitch a vehicle this heavy is just awe-inspiring," she said.
Robert Holt of Deltona, a self-described "space nut," said he was impressed by the size of the orbiter.
"You just don't know until you're this close to it," he said. "This will draw a lot of visitors."
Robert Shouse of Edgewater sat on the lower level, looking up the wing of Atlantis.
"I'm just in amazement about how far we've come and enjoying the sight of it."
Atlantis was the final orbiter to fly in the 30-year history of NASA's space-shuttle program. Its last and 33rd flight landed at Kennedy Space Center in July 2011. Space dust and scorch marks can be seen on the displayed Atlantis.
Admission to the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit is included in regular admission to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.