If we were to rank America's achievements, the Space Shuttle program would have to be near the top. The missions had forged a new path of discovery into space, and opened our collective universe a bit more.
A Star Trek and NASA fanboy, I tuned-in to every shuttle launch and landing on TV. I was awestruck. Every single time. Who wouldn't be? But in 2011 and after 135 missions, the shuttle program came to an end. It was a sad day for space geeks everywhere.
Grounded though they may be, the shuttles continue to inspire creativity and exploration. In four locations around the country, you can see the retired shuttles up close. The California Science Center in Los Angeles is one such place. There, you'll be able to spend some time with Space Shuttle Endeavour. Built in 1992 to replace the lost shuttle Challenger, Endeavour lived a wonderful life of exploration. She flew 122 million miles across 25 missions.
California Science Center
Science museums are typically boring. But not every science museum contains a fully intact space shuttle. The California Science Center has Endeavour, but it also boasts a really interesting aviation and space exhibit.
Fighter plane models hanging from the ceiling of the center's atrium really set the tone. Visitors are treated with a wonderful aviation exhibit, which includes a full-scale replica of the Wright Brothers' 1902 glider.
While Endeavour is the California Science Center's top attraction, the space exploration exhibits are spectacular as well. Pictured above is an engineering model of the Viking Lander. The first of two landers was launched in August 1975, bound for Mars. In July 1976, the device landed on the planet and began relaying photographs and data back to Earth.
The center's space exhibits also include information and models relating to telescope, rocket and satellite programs. Visitors will also learn more about the astronaut experience.
Endeavor's "Final Flight"
In 2012, Endeavour made its final flight atop a Boeing 747 transport plane, from the Kennedy Space Center to Los Angeles International Airport. The California Science Center is 12 miles away from LAX, and the shuttle had to be transported on the streets of Los Angeles. This time-lapse video shows how it was done:
Space Shuttle Endeavour Exhibit
Before you see the shuttle up close, you'll want to make your way through the exhibit detailing its history. You'll learn about the shuttle program, and also see some interesting pieces of Endeavour's history.
The photograph above if of the tires worn by Endeavour on her final flight. Visitors are encouraged to touch them. The four rear tires show an incredible amount of wear after just one landing. I have to say, I expected them to be quite a bit larger - tractors have bigger tires!
The first of the two images above in a 'space potty,' the toilet used by astronauts in space. A short video explains how these potties were used, with techniques different for men and women. Hint: air suction.
Monitoring equipment used at the Rocketdyne Operations Control Center can be seen in the second photo. This equipment was used to monitor the shuttle's main engines for the first 8 minutes, 30 seconds of each launch. Rocketdyne was a contractor who worked with and advised NASA on all 135 shuttle missions.
Although the Science Center is planning to build a new facility that places the shuttle upright, I enjoyed the present viewing perspective. I was able to roll underneath the shuttle and examine the heat-resistant tiles more closely. It surely is a beautiful machine.
The photo above is another perspective of Endeavour, as seen from the nose. You'll also see gift shop displays in the foreground. There are some great t-shirts and other gifts available for sale, and I'm sad I didn't get a shirt of my own.
You can also take a peek at the engine thrusters. These main engines were used in conjunction with the solid rocket boosters during launch. They took over after the external fuel tanks were detached, for shuttle's transition from the upper atmosphere to space.
The Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) are the most advanced and efficient large rocket engines in the world. Incredibly, NASA still plans to use this 1970s technology in future space missions, albeit without the shuttles.
ET-94, the last flight-ready external fuel tank in existence, is on display just outside Endeavor's hangar. This particular tank was built for use on Space Shuttle Columbia, which was tragically lost over Texas in 2003.
Things to Know, Accessibility
The California Science Center has no admission fee and is free to enter for all. There are a few paid experiences available, including IMAX movies and a rock-climbing wall. Access to the space shuttle exhibit is free.
Wheelchair accessibility throughout the center is excellent. Elevators and lifts will take visitors to every floor. ADA-compliant, wheelchair accessible bathrooms can be found on the museum's ground level. The exhibits are barrier-free, and I had no difficulty accessing them.
Location & Transportation
The California Science Center is located at 700 Exposition Park Drive, Los Angeles, California 90037. A parking garage which includes van accessible spaces is available next to the center. The cost of parking is $12, payable by cash only.
The nearest metro train station is Expo Park/USC, approximately 0.2 miles from the Science Center. This station is served by the Metro Expo line. Nearby city bus stops, all within 3 blocks of the center, are served by bus routes 81, 102, 200, 204, 442 and 550.
If you are a space geek like me, you won't want to miss seeing Endeavour. Tourists traveling to Los Angeles could spend a day in the immediate area, exploring the University of Southern California's campus and taking in some of the other incredible museums that are right next door.
Other attractions in the area include the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Fisher Museum of Art, California African American Museum, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the Exposition Park Rose Garden. Each of these attractions are located within walking (or rolling) distance of the Science Center.
For more information, visit www.californiasciencecenter.org.