The California Story (Part 2)

Chattering fifth-graders pass around us on all sides. A small group of three—two boys and a girl—stop along a wall that recounts the space shuttle Endeavour’s twenty-five-mission history in text and crew images. The children are tightly clustered, shoulder to shoulder, in front of the placard for STS-134, Endeavour’s final mission. Ken Phillips—the California Science Center’s Curator for Aerospace Science and someone that we have interviewed before—tell Doug that, when he sees students “arguing and pointing,” he knows that he has their interest. If that’s the bar by which success is measured, the California Science Center’s newest exhibit, Endeavour: The California Story, is going to be a runaway success.

The fifth-graders have come from the Science Center School, a grade school located on the same Exposition Park property as the California Science Center.  Approximately 600 students in K-5 classrooms attend the school. When Doug visited on the media preview day, some of these kids are also getting a preview of this new exhibit.

Actual tires from Endeavour’s last landing!

Upon entering the exhibit hall, a space that took months to assemble, the first thing that attracted Doug’s attention was the smell of rubber. Just inside the entrance is a display of the tires that were used on Endeavour’s last mission. The smell, just like standing next to a stack of brand new tires in an automotive showroom, is all the more amazing for two facts: first, the six tires—two from the nose gear and four from the main gear—have been in outer space; and second, they look to have had a hard life, with worn patches dotting their skin. And they did. On Endeavour’s final mission, STS-134, they spent fourteen days in space. During that time, even thought they were tucked away inside the shuttle’s landing gear bay, they reached a constant temperature of -40F.

But that’s nothing compared to what happens to tires during landing. The shuttle lands at roughly 220 miles per hour. The initial contact between the tires and the runway tarmac is so vigorous that onlookers can see puffs of smoke. Because of the wear from a landing, the active life of shuttle tires is also short: the main gear tires are used only once, and depending on wear patterns, the nose gear tires will be used no more than twice. So, despite the intensity of their working life, these tires at the exhibit are still very new, having less than four miles of use on them. A sign on top of the tire display encourages visitors to touch them, and Doug and the grade-schoolers did just that!

Just beyond the tires is another display, one that is likely to be the most popular part of the collection for a wide range audiences because it promises to answer the “deepest, darkest secret in spaceflight.” Mary Roach devoted a whole chapter of Packing for Mars to this hush-hush topic. It’s a question that we’ve been told astronauts and other NASA science communicators are asked on a regular basis: How does one GO up there? The California Story has an entire display dedicated to that universal human experience, and the center of attraction is the Waste Collection System, or WCS in NASA acronym-speak. An accompanying video, featuring one of our favorite astronauts, Mike Massimino, gives an overview of not just the Space Potty but also the astronaut training that is required for proper use. A visit to this exhibit is required for all space nerds if only to hear Massimino relate that using the facilities reminds him of Peter Fonda riding a motorcycle in Easy Rider. The only disappointing aspect of the display was that it didn’t contain a reference to The Big Bang Theory’s Howard Wolowitz, whose major contribution to science is this essential technological equipment.

The exhibit also includes a wonderful photo of Endeavour making its way through the streets of Los Angeles, an elapsed time video of that whole journey, two motion simulators, and a number of other engaging displays. There’s more, but we’ll save that for a subsequent post.

Or better yet, see all this and more for yourself. The Endeavour exhibit opened to the public yesterday, and the museum’s SpaceFest runs through Sunday and features astronaut presentations on the weekend. California Science Center admission is free—that’s right, you can see a space shuttle for free.

Meanwhile, we’re off to the Space Coast to see the last orbiter, Atlantis, make its way the few miles to the Visitor Complex at Kennedy Space Center. It’s exactly two years since we began our quest to see a launch, and this Friday, our journey with the space shuttle will end. We’ll tell you all about it—with photos—right here at Lofty Ambitions.

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