Very oversized load: Space shuttle replica touches down in St. Cloud

ST. CLOUD — The space shuttle replica owned by a St. Cloud native touched down here this weekend following a week-long journey from Florida to Minnesota.

The trek took the 25-ton fuselage on winding roads and often through small towns while each state's respective troopers drove ahead and behind the transport vehicle due to its massive size.

"Each state needs its own permits — and then you've got to get them to coordinate with each other," said Felicity-John Pederson, the shuttle's owner. "There are so many things that could go wrong so you're just so happy when every one of them went right."

The shuttle mockup, called the "Inspiration," crossed into Minnesota just after midnight Saturday and got to St. Cloud a few hours later. On Monday, a crew at a local business started welding together a stand to store the shuttle while Pederson and others plan for its future.

"Our first job is to define what this is and then start presenting it to partners, possibly large companies here in Minnesota, especially if they are involved in the aerospace industry," Pederson said.

Pederson is a graduate of St. Cloud's Apollo High School, which boasts a NASA training capsule on its campus. He's the founder of LVX System, which has a patent for visible light communication — something he worked on with NASA. He and his wife, Irene, spend time in both Florida and Minnesota.

In 2015, they took ownership of the full-size shuttle replica, which had fallen into a state of dilapidation and was going to be destroyed, and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore it.

"I think this is one of the coolest donations I've ever made in my life," said Pederson, who hopes the shuttle can be permanently displayed in a large dome as part of a new educational "Inspiration Space Port" complex that would also display other space vehicles, host speakers and exhibits related to space travel and sell tickets to virtual tours of outer space.

NASA's space shuttle program ended in 2011 with more than 130 missions flown. Two missions saw heartbreak: the Columbia shuttle was destroyed when entering the atmosphere and the Challenger disintegrated after launch, both incidents claiming the lives of seven crew members.

But the other missions inspired awe for millions of people across the country, especially Gen X and Millennial kids who grew up with dreams of visiting space. State Sen. Aric Putnam, a local supporter of the project, hopes to bring that joy and wonder to new generations.

"I'm just thrilled by the opportunity to inspire our young people to be more ambitious and have big ideas, big hope," he said.

The other shuttles that saw outer space are now on display on the coasts: the Discovery is in Washington D.C., the Atlantis is at Kennedy Space Center and the Endeavor is in Los Angeles. The Enterprise, a prototype orbiter that didn't fly but paved the way for the shuttle program, is on display in New York. And another replica, called the Independence, is on display atop a shuttle carrier airplane in Houston.

Jim Banke, a Minnesota native and former aerospace journalist in Florida, said Pederson's shuttle replica was built as a tourist attraction by the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in the early 1990s.

"This attraction was opened outside the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. It was originally called Shuttle to Tomorrow and was essentially a theater where you would walk into the cargo bay and ... wear these headphones and watch a movie," Banke said Monday.

After Pederson acquired the shuttle mockup, it was moved to the shuttle landing facility that is now used by the government agency Space Florida, which works with commercial space companies such as Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and Elon Musk's SpaceX.

Last fall, Space Florida told Pederson he needed to move the shuttle as soon as possible to make way for the expansion of the commercial companies — prompting Pederson to move the behemoth to his hometown. People can follow along with the endeavor at the "Inspiration Space Port ISP" Facebook page.

"I think this is a great opportunity for St. Cloud and all of Minnesota to have a shuttle mockup like this on display," Banke said. "Even if it never flew in space, I guarantee it will live up to its name 'Inspiration' for anyone who sees it and learns more about the space program."