We stepped into the hangar-like building and there it was, the space shuttle Endeavor, right in front of us. It was bigger than we expected and looked battle-worn, its white tiles scorched by the heat of 25 re-entries. A spontaneous chorus of "wow!" erupted, then everyone raised cell phones and started snapping photos.
The scene was at the California Science Center in Exposition Park, wedged between the University of Southern California and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where my girlfriends and I had just attended a football game. On our way back to our cars, we decided to detour through the new shuttle exhibit.
The exhibit starts with a display of shuttle tires. "This is sick," an excited young boy behind me breathed. Then there was a display of a space shuttle toilet and a video explaining how to use it. The 6-and-under set was fascinated by the space potty. Around the next corner were a mock-up of a section of Mission Control and a simulator ride.
Endeavor flew to Los Angeles International Airport on the back of a modified 747. Then it essentially was trailered through the streets of Los Angeles to the museum, about 12 miles away. Engineers plotted the route in advance, light poles were relocated, trees were cut down. Crowds gathered all along the route for what amounted to a one-float parade. Sidewalks and parking lots were jammed for a trek that ended up taking 68 hours. An edited and speeded-up video of the trip was shown at the museum, and it was almost as good as seeing the shuttle itself. We sat through it twice. Here's a slightly different version of the video.
We were ushered out of the room, out of the building and into another building where we finally saw Endeavor. The orbiter is mounted on a metal frame that raises it so people can walk beneath it and study its underside, which is just out of reach of a hand stretched overhead. We lingered for at least a half hour, gaping at the wonder of the shuttle, its enormous engines, the printing on the side that told where to cut for an emergency rescue, and all those scorched tiles.
A separate shuttle engine was mounted in a display. A preteen girl asked her mom if she wanted to know where the fan blades were, then proceeded to explain how the fuel powered the internal combustion engine. And we thought generations too young to have seen the first moon walk were blasé about the space program!
Endeavor is on display in a temporary space while its new home is being built. For more information on the California Science Center and the Endeavor display, click here.
Meantime, at the Kennedy Space Center, the space shuttle Atlantis has been moved into a six-story building still under construction, where it will go on display next summer, surrounded by more than 60 interactive exhibits.