Los Angeles has plenty of sunny weather, and rain is pretty unusual. But recently, it was pouring rain, and we had taken a day off work. What to do? We took the opportunity to check out the local California Science Center! We had never been before, and it had a lot of great exhibits. I was primarily interested in the Air & Space exhibit, and the museum is also the permanent home of the Space Shuttle Endeavor.
The space exhibit is broken out into a few sections: air and aircraft; humans in space; the solar system and planets; and telescopes and stars. The “humans in space” part of the exhibit has some really impressive things on display, including an actual Apollo command module, a Gemini capsule, and a Mercury-Redstone capsule.
For those who are less familiar with the details, the US space program back in the 1950s and 60s involved the creation of NASA and several successively ambitious projects designed to accomplish specific goals or milestones:
Project Mercury. Beginning immediately after the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into orbit (Sputnik in 1957), Project Mercury was the first human spaceflight program in the US and ran from 1958 to 1963. The goal was to put a man into orbit and, of course, return him safely. The program involved 20 spacecraft launches with no crew (some with an animal), and eventually it successfully launched humans into orbit.
Project Gemini. The purpose of Gemini (1961 to 1966) was to develop space travel techniques to support the ability to eventually land astronauts on the moon (which was ultimately done with Apollo). These techniques included things like extra-vehicular activity, rendezvous of spacecraft, and docking. The name Gemini comes from the fact that the spacecraft carried a two-person crew, named after the Gemini twins in Greek mythology.
Project Apollo. Running from 1968 to 1972, the goal of Apollo was to land the first astronauts on the moon. It involved a three person spacecraft and was originally conceived during the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s, but later dedicated to JFK’s goal of landing a man on the moon, and of course eventually achieved its goal with Apollo 11 in 1969.
The highlight of the museum (for me, at least) was the Endeavor exhibit. The US only produced a total of six space shuttles, which were in operation from the first flight in 1981 through the last flight in 2011: Enterprise, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor. The first shuttle, Enterprise, was only used for testing purposes. Two of the six shuttles, Challenger and Columbia, were lost in two disasters when they disintegrated during their missions, in 1986 and 2003, respectively. That means only four of the six shuttles are still in existence, and the California Science Center houses one of them. The Endeavor was gifted to the museum and, through seemingly herculean efforts, transported to southern California back in 2012.
It was pretty amazing to learn about the difficult journey to physically move the shuttle through the streets of Los Angeles, and to see one of the few remaining shuttles up close.
The space shuttle is currently on display in this building, but the museum is in the process of building another even larger building where the shuttle will sit vertically, attached to the booster tanks as if it were ready for launch. This will be the only place in the world where the shuttle will be displayed in this manner. I’m not sure when the exhibit will be completed, but it should be pretty impressive.
I didn’t grow up during the space race in the 1950s and 60s, but rather during the 1980s and 90s when the space shuttle program seemed like the future. Now, of course, it’s been retired and NASA is developing the Space Launch System, and private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others are building massive rockets to put humans into space (which SpaceX has already successfully done). But this exhibit really hit home for me; I was in awe at the experience of seeing one of the only space shuttles in existence. If you live in LA or are planning to visit, I’d definitely recommend a trip to the California Science Center.