Houston — Visitors to Space Center Houston can explore one of America’s greatest engineering marvels with the opening of Independence Plaza, a $14 million multi-exhibit complex designed by architecture and engineering firm PGAL. The attraction’s multi-level structure provides visitors with unprecedented access to a high-fidelity shuttle replica, Independence, mounted on top of the original shuttle carrier aircraft NASA 905.

As the world’s only exhibit of its kind, visitors have the opportunity to enter both vehicles and learn about the Space Shuttle Program as well as the future of space exploration through interactive exhibits and artifacts.

PGAL designed and engineered the 5,500-square-foot steel tower and developed the site, concrete plaza and pedestal structures to support and facilitate efficient maintenance of the aircraft.

“The exterior design of the building is intentionally simple and understated so it can serve as a backdrop for the real star, which is the shuttle itself,” says PGAL Senior Associate Giang Phan, who led the architectural design. “It’s only when you walk inside that you notice the complexity of the building – much like an airplane itself.”

Inside the structure are two elevators and a stairway to provide efficient access to all levels of the plane and shuttle, including the flight deck and mid-deck of the shuttle as well as the Boeing 747 shuttle carrier aircraft. Open-air vestibules allow visitors to assemble as they wait to board each aircraft.

The building’s 6.5-foot-wide stairway is integrated into the building’s overall structure, providing a unique experience for visitors.

“The stairs are supported by the building structure itself, rather than independent stair columns, creating an extremely open feeling as people use the stairs,” says PGAL Senior Associate J.R. Garcia, P.E., who led the structural engineering. “At the same time, the stairs have enough structure around them to provide a comfortable and secure experience.”

Independence Plaza is the largest project undertaken by the Manned Space Flight Education Foundation since the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization opened Space Center Houston in 1992. PGAL previously provided master planning and full architecture and engineering services for the original 183,000-square-foot visitor center.

“Independence Plaza is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of project,” Phan says. “It’s particularly significant because PGAL designed the original building and we’ve maintained that relationship for more than 20 years and had the opportunity to design this remarkable new attraction. It was exciting to work on a building that will be enjoyed by so many people from around the world.”

Space Center Houston is located at 1601 NASA Parkway in Houston. The center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays with extended seasonal hours that are posted on its website. Admission to Independence Plaza is included with full-price admission.