CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Former United Space Alliance engineer Pablo Martinez used to pinch himself when he worked on the space shuttles, a reminder of just how important the vehicles were in the nation's history.
When he walked beside Atlantis, officially unveiled to the public for the first time on display at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on Saturday, it was a similar feeling, though a tad bittersweet.
"I'm not happy it ended this way, but I'm happy to see it again," Martinez said.
"It's nice it can be shared with the world," added his wife, Sandra.
The priceless artifact wowed thousands from its perch - 43.21 degrees to the port side and 30 feet in the air, as if in flight - inside the $100 million exhibit. The thousands included those seeing a space shuttle for the first time, as well as astronauts who flew Atlantis and former shuttle workers who dedicated years to prepping the shuttle fleet for flight.
"It's been a while since I teared up," said astronaut Ken Ham, who flew on Discovery and Atlantis. "I was really glad there was a little corner over there I could go and be by myself before I had to talk to folks. This engineering marvel right here kept me and all my friends alive in one of the most harsh environments that humans have ever known. It's making my skin crawl right now, it's amazing. ... It's just stunning."
The exhibit had special meaning for astronaut Dave Leestma, who flew on Atlantis in 1992, and also on Challenger and Columbia. He was among dozens of astronauts who attended the opening.
"They no longer exist," he said of the latter two shuttles. "This is the only one left of the ones I saw, so this is kind of a legacy for my kids and their kids. It's special."
The opening ceremony featured a final 10-second countdown and was held in front of the replica solid rocket boosters and external tank that flank the Atlantis exhibit entrance.
"Just as the future of our space program rides on the shoulders of the shuttle, and those who flew her and those who worked on her, it's made possible by everyone here who shared a dream of manned spaceflight," Bill Moore, chief operating officer at Kennedy Space Center, told the crowd. "They worked tirelessly to make it a reality, and we will fly manned, from the Kennedy Space Center, again, into space."
At that, the crowd erupted into loud applause.
The noise was only topped when the crowd went inside to see Atlantis' big reveal.
A.J. Eger's jaw dropped. The 7-year-old from Ocoee, Fla., wants to be an astronaut. Why?
" 'Cause you get to float in space," he said.
The Atlantis display was jaw dropping even for space veterans.
Charlie and Susan Floyd, of Merritt Island, have spent their careers in the space program. Charlie was a lead instructor on the lunar module simulators in the Apollo program, and Susan assisted with the recoveries of Challenger and Columbia. They met at KSC in 1964.
"It's absolutely gorgeous, but it's sad in a way," she said of the Atlantis exhibit, while taking a break on a bench. "It is absolutely the most majestic flying machine we've ever built. I don't know if we'll ever build anything like it."
They said the shuttle, which still boasts the "space dust" it returned home with on its final flight in 2011, appeared more beautiful than they expected.
"It's amazing to see it now, where the public can virtually touch it," Charlie Floyd said.
NASA chemist Phil Howard, of Merritt Island, choked up seeing the Atlantis display for the first time.
"The span of the program," he took a pause. "(Atlantis) is a tremendous tribute to all the workers that spent thousands of hours getting this ready for the astronauts. They hit the mark. They went over the top."
Pablo and Sandra Martinez got engaged on July 8, 2011, the day of Atlantis' last takeoff, and just days before Martinez lost his job. For them, Atlantis triggers wonderful and difficult memories - Pablo is still looking for work - but they wouldn't have missed the grand opening Saturday.
"We do everything Atlantis now," Sandra said. "We kind of call it our old friend."