Time Capsule Sealed in Space Shuttle Exhibit

Space Shuttle Program Time Capsule
At the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, a space shuttle program time capsule has been installed in a vault within the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit. (Image credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann)

NASA's Florida visitor center has dedicated a time capsule filled with memorabilia related to the 30-year space shuttle program. Not to be opened until 2061 — 50 years after the last shuttle mission — the time capsule was sealed in the wall of the building that displays the spacecraft that completed that historic final flight.

A public ceremony to dedicate the time capsule was held Monday (Sept. 9) in the "Space Shuttle Atlantis" exhibit at the NASA's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The five-story-tall facility displays the retired orbiter and more than 60 related artifacts and simulators designed to inspire a new generation of space program workers.

The $100 million exhibit opened to the public in June. [See Photos of the New Space Shuttle Atlantis Exhibit]

A metal plaque featuring a silhouette of an orbiter and the date 2061 marks where the time capsule is installed. "A time capsule created by the space shuttle team honoring the 30-year space shuttle program is sealed behind this wall. It will be unveiled on July 21, 2061, to honor the 50th anniversary of the space shuttle program's final mission [STS-135]."

The contents of the time capsule were chosen to explain to those who open it in 2061 the significance of the shuttle program through the perspective of what it meant to work at the Kennedy Space Center during the time the orbiters flew.

The first space shuttle, Columbia, lifted off April 12, 1981. The last, Atlantis, landed July 21, 2011. In between those milestones, 133 missions retrieved, repaired and deployed satellites, launched probes to other planets, serviced the Hubble Space Telescope and built the International Space Station.

Among the memorabilia inside the time capsule are:

  • a space shuttle heat shield tile
  • a retrieval pin from the solid rocket boosters
  • a shuttle worker's white overalls and hard hat
  • rocks collected from the crawlerway atop which the shuttle was transported to the launch pad
  • A "Mission Accomplished" toy bear that was made commemorating the final shuttle mission, STS-135 (Atlantis). A bear was created for each of the space shuttle mission.
  • Mission patches for all 135 space shuttle missions
  • A Kennedy Space Center director's challenge coin

Other items that were placed inside the capsule included an employee's ID lanyard; the center's annual report from 2010; photos of the Launch Complex 39 area, from where the shuttle was processed and launched, as it appeared in 1981 and 2011; and NASA pamphlets describing Kennedy as "America's Spaceport."

Kennedy Space Center director Bob Cabana, who flew on four space shuttle missions, said the time capsule was as much about the future as it was the past.

"As important as our past was, our future is what it's all about," Cabana remarked during the dedication ceremony, as reported by Florida Today. "Just imagine where we're going to be 50 years from now?"

Based on its current plans, NASA hopes by 2061 to have launched astronauts to explore an asteroid and to have crews orbiting Mars, if not also by then on their way to the surface of the red planet. If schedules hold, the opening of the capsule will also come more than four decades after the first commercially-built spacecraft delivers astronauts to the International Space Station.

In August 2011 at a "We Made History" celebration held at the Kennedy Space Center, 426 young "Space Exploration Ambassadors" were nominated to be at the time capsule's opening 50 years later. Patrick Sullivan, who was chosen as one of the ambassadors, attended Monday's dedication ceremony to speak about the history of the space shuttle program and the future of space exploration.

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Robert Z. Pearlman
collectSPACE.com Editor, Space.com Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.