Atlantis, the last aircraft of its kind to launch into space before the U.S. ended its 30-year space shuttle program, is slowly making its historic journey to its final home on Friday.

The shuttle is being transported 16 kilometres, very slowly, aboard a 76-wheel flatbed vehicle from the Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Bay to a new visitor centre where it will be put on display for the public.

Atlantis was the last of NASA's three surviving shuttles to retire when it completed its final flight on July 21, 2011.

Quick Facts

  • Atlantis has orbited Earth 4,848 times.
  • It has travelled 202,673,974 kilometres.
  • The shuttle has spent just over 305 days in space.
  • Atlantis has carried 195 crew members to space on 32 missions, including two Canadians: Chris Hadfield in 1995 and Steve MacLean in 2006.

"Today marks the end of a phenomenal 30 year program for the space shuttle," said Robert Cabana, director of the Kennedy Space Centre during the retirement ceremony for Atlantis on Friday.

"It was very sad, but okay, this morning when we watched Atlantis roll out of the 

[Vehicle Assembly Building] for the very last time. Although this is the end of Atlantis flying in space, it's not the end....Atlantis now takes on a mission of inspiration to future generations."

Its predecessors, the EndeavourEnterprise and Discovery, have all been transported to museums and a science centre in California, New York, and Virginia, respectively.

But Atlantis' final journey lays to rest the last relic of the space-shuttle era, as NASA makes way for the next generation of spacecraft.

Mood dampened by NASA layoffs

Atlantis emerged just before dawn from the massive Vehicle Assembly Building, and about 200 workers gathered in the early morning chill to see the space shuttle out in the open for the final time.

They were joined by the four astronauts who closed out the shuttle program aboard Atlantis more than a year ago.

A brief look at each of NASA's space shuttles:

Atlantis: Being moved Friday to Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center after 33 missions stretching back to 1985.  

Enterprise: Shuttle prototype used in jetliner-drop tests over Edwards Air Force Base in California in 1977, never flew in space. Originally on display at Smithsonian Institution hangar in Virginia, it was flown to New York City this past April and moved into the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in June.  

Columbia: Destroyed during descent on Feb. 1, 2003, after 28 missions stretching back to 1981. All seven astronauts were killed. The wreckage is stored in NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, for research purposes.  

Challenger: Destroyed during launch on Jan. 28, 1986, after 10 missions stretching back to 1983. All seven astronauts were killed. Buried in a pair of abandoned missile silos at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  

Discovery: Moved to Smithsonian Institution hangar in Virginia in April after 39 missions stretching back to 1984.    

Endeavour: Flown to Los Angeles in September and moved into California Science Center in October after 25 missions stretching back to 1992. It was the replacement for space shuttle Challenger.

Portions of Atlantis' final launch countdown boomed over loudspeakers as the shuttle paused in front of the Vehicle Assembly Building before hitting the road.

Employees gathered in front of a long white banner that read, "We Made History," and below that the single word "Atlantis."

They followed the spaceship for a block or two, then scattered as the shuttle transporter revved up to its maximum 3.2 km/hr. The convoy following the shuttle includes a dozen trucks and vans, their lights blinking.

The shuttle is making its way down broad industrial avenues, most of them off-limits to the public.

The roundabout loop was to take the shuttle past Kennedy's headquarters building for a midmorning retirement ceremony and then to a still-under-design industrial park for a few hours of public viewing in the afternoon.

Tourist tickets ran as high as $90 apiece for a chance to see the spaceship up close.  

Crews removed 120 light poles, 23 traffic signals and 56 traffic signs in order for Atlantis to squeeze by. One high-voltage power line also had to come down. Staff trimmed back some scrub pines, but there was none of the widespread tree-axing that occurred in when Endeavour rolled through downtown Los Angeles.  

Atlantis had to traverse just one noticeable incline, a highway ramp. The rest of the course is sea-level flat.

The fact that several hundred shuttle workers are about to lose their jobs, now that Atlantis is being turned over to the visitor complex, dampened the mood. Thousands already have been laid off.

"The untold story of the last couple years, the last missions that we flew, is the workforce. I mean, the contractors knew that their numbers were going to go down ... and yet they kept doing their jobs," said NASA's Angie Brewer, who was once in charge of getting Atlantis ready for flight.

First shuttle to dock with Russian space station

Atlantis began its first mission on Oct. 3, 1985, where it spent four days in space delivering classified cargo, widely believed to be military communications satellites.

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Space Shuttle Atlantis lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. on May 14, 2010. (Bruce Weaver/AFT/Getty)

Its key missions included carrying the Venus-bound Magellan probes and the Galileo probes into space in 1989. In 1995, Atlantis became the first shuttle to dock with the Russian space station Mir.

The shuttle has been in the Vehicle Assembly Building since last month. There, technicians had been preparing Atlantis to go on display to the public. This included removing components and chemical systems inside the shuttle that may be toxic, said Malone.

The shuttle paused en route to the new visitor centre this morning for a retirement ceremony with officials, staff as well as current and former astronauts from the final mission of Atlantis.

"Now, Atlantis will continue its life," said Chris Ferguson, the commander of the shuttle's final mission. "Its life of exploration is complete ... Its life of inspiration will pick up from this day forward, and inspire young men and women for decades to come."

NASA administrator Charles Bolden said although the 30-year program had come to a close, "our best days are ahead of us, with the shuttle as our tail wind."

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Space center workers carry a banner while walking behind the shuttle Atlantis as it makes its way to the Visitor Complex at the Kennedy Space Center, on Friday. (Terry Renna/Associated Press)

"The spirit that created the program and built [Atlantis] is very much alive, developing systems and technologies for private companies... but also to keep us on the road to asteroids, and Mars and places beyond," he said during the ceremony.

Atlantis is expected to reach the visitor complex at about 6 p.m. It will then be covered and protected while construction of the complex is completed, said Kennedy Space Center spokeswoman Lisa Malone.

A grand opening of the new home for Atlantis, at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, is planned for July 2013.

The $100-million US building will showcase Atlantis suspended in the air in the orbit position, with a massive digital projection of Earth that will rotate by the shuttle.

With files from the Associated Press