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November 12, 2019

Achieving Orbit

Achieving Orbit Get up close to the Space Shuttle on your next trip to L.A. by Steven Sandor The Endeavour space shuttle. Photograph by Noelle Der The space shuttle, up close, looks like a giant piata. The heat tiles that cover the ship aren’t smooth; so, the closer you get to…

Achieving Orbit

Get up close to the Space Shuttle on your next trip to L.A.

The Endeavour space shuttle.

Photograph by Noelle Der

The space shuttle, up close, looks like a giant piata.

The heat tiles that cover the ship aren’t smooth; so, the closer you get to the Endeavour, the more it feels like you’re looking at a papier-mche mockup of a space shuttle – even though it’s the real McCoy.

The Endeavour is the star showpiece at the California Science Center, located in Los Angeles’s Exposition Park, which is also home to many of the city’s grand old Olympic venues – it hosted the Summer Games in 1932 and 1984. The park also houses the Rose Garden and L.A.’s Natural History Museum.

But it’s the Endeavour that gathers the big crowds. While there is no admission charge to the Science Center, if you want to see the shuttle during peak times, it will cost $2 to reserve a spot in line. 

The shuttle itself is housed in a temporary facility, basically a giant shed that is located next door to the Science Center. It sits on a series of bars, which allow visitors to walk right underneath the black belly.

The chance to see one of the three surviving shuttles that went to space – the Atlantis is displayed at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center while the Discovery is at the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar in Virginia – offers a nice break for those of us who head to California for beaches, star-watching and Disneyland. And it’s one of the cheapest attractions in all of Southern California. 

You walk into the Science Center, through the atrium and up to the second floor, where you’re taken into the shuttle exhibit. There’s a mock up of mission control, with the screens showing a shuttle launch sequence. But even more impressive is the story of how the shuttle got into Exposition Park. It was piggy-backed on top of a 747 to Los Angeles International Airport back in the fall of 2012. 

But a space shuttle is big – more than four lanes of traffic wide. How to get it through the city streets? Pictures placed throughout the facility, plus a film that’s screened as part of the exhibit, tell the story. The images are powerful, showing the shuttle slowly being towed through the streets of one of the world’s most traffic-snarled cities. My favourite? An image of kids playing basketball in a backyard, while the profile of Endeavour can be seen between the houses. Or the Endeavour‘s wing coming oh-so-close to a giant doughnut perched atop a coffee shop.

 After going through the exhibit, it’s back downstairs, outside and into the storage shed. And there it is – as close as most of us will get to an actual spaceship. Walking behind the giant thrusters, you can almost hear the roar of the engines in your head.

A model that’s under glass, right next to the gift shop, shows off the grand plans for the Endeavour exhibit. In the mock up, the ship is pointed to the sky, with the red rocket boosters attached. A tower, shaped like a gantry, allows visitors to walk up to the top, and look out to the nose of the shuttle. 

But, for now, the shuttle is in a shed. It’s just a three-hour direct flight from Edmonton to LAX; and seeing Endeavour up close is well worth the trip.

But it’s not a giant piata. So don’t hit it with a stick.

How to get to Los Angeles:

Daily direct flights to LAX from Edmonton via WestJet; Air Canada will require a stopover in Calgary, Vancouver or Denver.

How to get around:

This is Los Angeles, famous for its traffic-snarled freeways and inefficient public transit. While the Metro Expo Line runs to Exposition Park, chances are it won’t go near your hotel, especially if you decide to stay in areas outside the core – such as Orange County or the beach areas, like Santa Monica or Venice. Rent a car. Really, it’s not that intimidating to drive there – despite what you see on TV and in the movies.  While traffic is thick, drivers tend to be more courteous than you find in Canada.