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“It’s a big divorce that nobody wants _ because we’re a family,” Bakehorn said. “We’ve watched each other get old and gray and bald. We’ve watched each other have kids, watched them grow up and watched them have kids … I’d do anything for most of these people here. I’ve spent more time around a lot of them than I have my own family, my own kids and my own wife. So it’s very difficult.”

As bad as it is, the pall hanging over the space center is nothing like it was after Challenger erupted during liftoff in 1986 and Columbia shattered during descent in 2003, at least from Bakehorn’s perspective.

“These orbiters are personal. It’s like a living, breathing thing to us,” Bakehorn said. So he cried not just for the loss of the 14 astronauts who died, “but for the loss of my friends Challenger and Columbia.”

NASA’s Stephanie Stilson, who has been overseeing the shuttle transition, considers Atlantis “the saving grace for us” since it is staying put.

Shuttle Discovery went to the Smithsonian in Virginia in April. Endeavour moved into the California Science Center in Los Angeles in October.

Those two shuttles flew to their new homes atop a jumbo jet with postcard-perfect backdrops. Atlantis will be ferried on a 76-wheeled platform Friday from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the main base of operations at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Its $100 million exhibit for Atlantis _ still under construction and financed by tour operator Delaware North Cos. _ is due to open next summer. The shuttle will appear as though it is orbiting the planet, with its payload bay doors open.

“We’ve all known it’s coming, but still until you actually get there, you really don’t understand how you’re going to feel,” said Stilson, who will be moving on to a job at NASA headquarters in Washington.

For her, the tears didn’t flow until the last leg of Endeavour’s cross-country flight to Los Angeles in September. Then, “I was bawling like a baby.”

Bakehorn, in fact, is skipping Friday’s big Atlantis event, which is drawing NASA brass as well as members of the public paying up to $90 apiece.

“I’ve said my goodbyes. You can only do it only so many times,” he said Thursday.

Earlier this week, the two NASA astronauts aboard the space station, Sunita Williams and Kevin Ford, thanked the remaining shuttle workers for their contribution. They also offered reassurance.

“We wouldn’t be here on the International Space Station if it wasn’t for the successful work of the space shuttles bringing all these modules up here,” Williams told The Associated Press. “I’m sure there are many places that their talents would be wanted and desired.”

To make it clear that Kennedy isn’t shutting down, NASA held a pair of news conferences on the eve of Atlantis’ move to talk up the growing commercial side of the space program and the future of human exploration.

Just this past Sunday, an unmanned SpaceX Dragon capsule returned science samples and equipment from the space station after dropping off cargo. The Dragon rocketed into orbit Oct. 7 from the adjoining Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The California-based company hopes to provide ferry rides for astronauts in a few years and create more SpaceX jobs at Cape Canaveral.

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