By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - NASA's last space shuttle rolled out of a hangar in Florida on Friday and traveled down the road to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex to begin a new life as a museum piece.
Atlantis is the third and final shuttle to be retired and turned over for public display after the end of the 30-year-old shuttle program last year.
"Don't cry because it's over; smile because we had it," Patty Stratton, a manager with shuttle contractor United Space Alliance, told workers gathered before dawn outside the Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building.
The 1960s-era Apollo complex, later used to pair shuttles with booster rockets and fuel tanks for flight, now stands empty.
Kennedy Space Center is in the midst of a transition to support a planned heavy-lift rocket and deep space capsule able to fly astronauts to destinations beyond the International Space Station's 250-mile orbit.
NASA intends to turn over station crew ferry flights to private companies.
For now, Russia has the only transportation system to fly astronauts to the station, a service that costs the United States more than $60 million per seat.
Mounted on top of a 76-wheel flatbed trailer, Atlantis began its final journey before dawn on a clear and cool autumn day at the seaside Florida spaceport. It made several stops along the 10-mile (16-km) route before reaching the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex just after 6 p.m. EDT (2200 GMT).
"It traveled a lot faster in its previous life," quipped former astronaut Chris Ferguson, who commanded the last shuttle flight aboard Atlantis. "I think that maybe a generation or two of pilots after me are going to look at the space shuttle and wonder what it was like to fly that."
Hundreds of current and former employees, including dozens of astronauts, paraded with the shuttle as it slowly made its way beyond the space center's security gates into the publicly accessible Exploration Park, where about 8,000 people had gathered to welcome Atlantis.
Another crowd gathered at the Visitors Complex for a celebration and fireworks show.
"Today marks the end of a phenomenal 30-year program," said Kennedy Space Center director Robert Cabana, during a ceremony to sign over the shuttle to Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts, which operates the visitors' center under a contract with NASA.
"Atlantis now takes on a mission of inspiration for future generations," Cabana said.
Between its debut flight in 1985 and the shuttle finale in July 2011, Atlantis racked up more than 306 days in space, including seven missions to the now-defunct Russian space station Mir and 12 flights to the jointly owned international outpost, a $100 billion project of 15 nations.
Atlantis is the last of NASA's three surviving spaceships to be retired. Discovery is located at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, and Endeavour was turned over to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
Two shuttles, Challenger and Columbia, were lost in accidents that claimed the lives of 14 astronauts. A prototype shuttle, Enterprise, was given to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City.
Delaware North is designing a $100 million exhibit scheduled to open in July 2013 to showcase Atlantis and educate the public about the shuttle program.
The ship will be suspended from a pedestal, belly up with its cargo bay doors open, as if it were flying in space.
"It'll be a tremendous exhibit," said NASA spokesman Michael Curie.
(Editing by Kevin Gray and David Brunnstrom)