To celebrate the anniversary of the space shuttle Endeavour's journey… (Bryan Chan, Los Angeles…)
Tens of thousands of spectators crowded sidewalks and rooftops last October as the space shuttle Endeavour crawled across the streets of Los Angeles and Inglewood, an overwhelming welcome home for the retired spacecraft.
Two weeks later, when the California Science Center opened the shuttle to public view, attendance at the Exposition Park museum surged. In just a few months, more than 1 million people visited the Science Center, which had averaged roughly 1.6 million visitors per year prior to the shuttle's arrival.
Now, nearly one year after Endeavour made its debut, crowds are still piling through the museum doors. California Science Center officials say almost 2.7 million people will see the shuttle in its inaugural year — a record-setting figure that surpasses even the estimate they readjusted after the first rush.
"One thing that everyone in our field knows is that you get a boost when something new opens, and then attendance will begin to decline," California Science Center President Jeffrey Rudolph said. "What's happened is that the interest and the level of interest stayed higher and longer than what we anticipated."
Endeavour's journey to the California Science Center began two decades ago, when aerospace curator Ken Phillips first proposed the idea of acquiring a shuttle. After the space shuttle program ended in 2011, a fierce national competition ensued as institutions lobbied NASA for one of the four retired orbiters. The California Science Center was the only institution west of the Mississippi to receive one.
Although the shuttle arrived in Exposition Park a year ago, the work hasn't stopped for those who brought it there.
Two major tasks remain at hand for the Science Center staff: Building the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center that will permanently house Endeavour, and then moving the shuttle inside. The latter is particularly complicated, as the 122-foot-long shuttle must be lifted to a vertical position as though ready for launch, complete with an external tank and twin solid rocket boosters.
Plans for the lift and move are still being finalized. Rudolph guessed the shuttle would be rolled into the air and space center about a year before its scheduled opening in 2018. The move, he said, would be a "first of a kind" process that in many ways would be "considerably more complex" than the 13-mile trek Endeavour made from Los Angeles International Airport to the Science Center last year.
"When we put it in that launch position, it's going to be incredible," Rudolph said.
But the crew involved isn't taking any chances. The Science Center has brought in engineers who worked on the shuttle program to assist with preparing Endeavour for its future display.
On Thursday, they opened the shuttle for the first time since it arrived in Los Angeles to take measurements of the payload bay, where officials hope to install Spacehab — the capsule where astronauts would conduct experiments — for display next year.
The interior of the shuttle is cramped, even with a mid-deck stripped of the lockers, galley and toilet. In the flight deck, where the commander and pilot would sit, more than 2,000 switches, dials and buttons cover the walls and ceiling. Spare surfaces are covered with Velcro, where astronauts would stick anything — pens, cameras, food bags, laptops — to keep them from floating away.
Outside, visitors pointed and posed for pictures in front of the massive spacecraft. Volunteers — many who worked for companies that helped built parts for the shuttle — stood nearby, ready to answer the questions sure to come their way.
Bernard Bregman, who retired in March after a 30-year career at the Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo, said he jumped at the chance to become a volunteer. Bregman remembers the day he was inspired to work in aerospace — Oct. 4, 1957, when the Russians launched Sputnik — and said he hoped to inspire future scientists and engineers.
"I said if I can come here and inspire other kids to get involved in this business just like I was inspired, then this is a worthwhile endeavor," he said. "And so I'm here with the Endeavour, in the shadow of the Endeavour, to try and explain science and technology and how interesting it is and how much fun I had."
The best sight, he said, is when a kid comes up to the shuttle in an astronaut suit.
"That's what I want."