I spent the first few weeks of January in California. Because I was particularly keen, msinvisfem and I caught a train into Los Angeles to go and visit this place:
We paid more than we needed to for the train, as I made the mistake of going to a window for service in the station rather than buying from a machine. Different train company, as we figured out later, and happy to charge us getting on for twice as much without even mentioning that there was a cheaper and more frequent alternative service.
We got off the train in LA Union Station, found our way outside through the impressive waiting room and walked down the road a bit for the Metro Silver Line (a bus service, despite what it may sound like). We both checked the route signage, waited for a bit, and got onto the right bus heading in the wrong direction.
When we reached the end of the route without spotting our destination, it became clear that something had gone wrong, and a helpful cop who managed to keep a straight face throughout directed us to the correct stance to go back again.
By this time, the generous safety margin that we’d allowed for getting there before our timed tickets were due to take effect was looking a bit shaky. In fact it was worse than that, as it turned out. By the time we’d returned to Go, did not collect £200, and headed out in the right direction for a similar period of time, our safety margin was completely blown and we turned up half an hour too late.
Luckily, it turned out that the timing on the ticket wasn’t strictly applied at all. We turned up at the entry desk ready to beg, and were practically waved through.
And so we got in to the California Science Center to see this:
Actually, we didn't see it straight away. There's a gallery containing a few exhibits, and a film of the shuttle being transported through the streets of Los Angeles on a fancy low-loader, before you go back down stairs to enter the Samuel Oschin Pavilion.
The gallery exhibits include a set of used tires, so you can touch something that’s been into space, and a space toilet, so that you can either marvel at the engineering or snigger about poo, depending on your level of maturity. Much of the rest of the space is taken up by a mock mission control centre, a couple of fairground-style simulators, a display of things that astronauts took into space with them, such as badges and cutlery, and photos of every shuttle crew.
We went round most of this, but skipped the film, and headed out of the gallery and towards the main display. Given that the shuttles were only retired last year, the Samuel Oschin Pavilion is basically a big shed – clearly a stop-gap until the money can be raised for a dedicated building. Still, you don’t need a fancy building; what you’re interested in is in the middle of the space, and you’re not concerned so much with what's around it.
The Endeavour perches a few feet above head height in the centre of the room, sitting on an overland transporter (the yellow frame in the photos) balanced on columns topped by seismic isolators, so that it doesn’t come to grief if there’s an earthquake.
The first impression is of something big and hefty; not as big as a jumbo, as you would expect if you've seen it transported atop of one, but heading in that direction. The second impression, though is that there doesn't seem to be a lot of space to keep a crew in for any length of time. Unfortunately that impression is about all you get, because you can’t see inside the shuttle at all. The closest you get to that is a SpaceHab module that’s on the floor to one side:
Apparently it was originally designed to take space tourists aboard the shuttle, but in practice was used as extra living, lab and equipment space.
Looking at the shuttle itself, after the conflicting impressions of size, the next thing to strike you is, for a high-tech wonder, how jerry-built it looks. The upper fuselage appears to be covered in blankets, and this is because it is. They’re very carefully made and applied blankets, but blankets are what they remain and it’s odd to see a vehicle that you probably tend to imagine as a big metallic object actually look a little like it’s been designed for the nursery.
The famous tiles on the underside look rather more the part, but it’s equally disconcerting to think that they’re stuck onto felt pads (to allow thermal expansion and contraction) and to see the evidence of how fragile they are:
Because the shuttle is so close above your head, it’s quite tempting to jump up and poke a tile yourself, but I rather suspect if you tried it you’d be out of there before your feet touched the ground again! Each of those six-inch or so tiles is unique (hence the serial number on each one), costs about $2,000 and is so light and fragile you could crush it in your hand.
The SSMEs (Space Shuttle Main Engines) have actually been removed from the shuttle, for a couple of reasons; noxious chemicals, and because they’re still the most advanced large rocket engines in the world, and they’re going to be re-used in the Space Launch System. The shuttle still looks the part, because it’s been fitted with real SSME nozzles, but only one of the three (the uppermost one) has actually flown in space. The other two were used in engine development tests. There’s another unused engine nearby:
Finally there are drawings and models of the building they’d like to build for it, and a gift shop pretty much under the nose.
There are quite informative boards all around the shuttle, and as a fairly casually interested visitor I didn’t feel short-changed for information, but something I noticed about the California Science Centre, and other museums I’ve been to in the States, is that the amount of information available in writing is limited. The displays are similar in depth to those elsewhere, but there doesn’t seem to be any way to pick up more information if you want it. Even in the gift shop, there was literally one book, as against the many T-shirts, toy shuttles, shot glasses and Xmas ornaments. If I came here as a serious shuttle enthusiast, I might be a little disappointed about that. Otherwise though – if you have the chance, go!