California Science Center expansion spotlights Endeavor

The Space Shuttle Endeavor moved to liftoff position Jan. 29 after 12 years on its side.

NASA built and operated six space shuttles between 1977 and 2011, with the Space Shuttle Endeavour being the last. (Aaron Ogawa / Daily Trojan)

The Space Shuttle Endeavour is now in liftoff position inside the soon-to-be Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center at the California Science Center, which will soon add to the museum’s series of educational programs.

The California Science Center moved the shuttle from its horizontal position to an upright position Jan. 29 for the first time since it flew to space in 2011.

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Endeavour has sat in a lateral grounded position in a hangar next to the Science Center since it arrived in 2012. The process to get the 172,000-pound shuttle upright was a long road in itself.

“After a lot of studying different options, we decided the best way to do it would be to essentially follow the same procedures that NASA used on every launch at Kennedy Space Center,” said California Science Center CEO Jeffrey Rudolph. “We determined some time ago the only way to get [it] in the building was to put it in before the building was completed.” 

The approximately six-month “go for stack” process, completed Jan. 29, started with the installation of the aft skirts onto the bottom of the exhibit, to provide structural support for the solid rocket boosters and external tank. The shuttle then had to be attached to the seismic isolators beneath the building — a common procedure in Southern California museums to prepare for possible earthquakes.  

Endeavour will now permanently reside in the California Science Center in Exposition Park, just a couple of yards away from USC’s University Park Campus. Expo Park is now the only area outside of a NASA facility to have a shuttle moved in this way on its grounds and the only place on Earth to see a fully assembled Space Shuttle System.

“It’s kind of a surreal experience,” said Kenneth Phillips, curator of Aerospace Science. “It feels quite like it felt the day we got the call that we got Endeavour. There is kind of a shock to the system.”

The Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center, which will be built around the shuttle, will be open to the public in a few years. 

Rudolph said he is excited about the hands-on interactive experience Endeavour will provide, including allowing guests to be extremely close to an object once flown through outer space.

The shuttle arrived in Los Angeles atop a modified Boeing 747 in 2012. The shuttle was then paraded through the streets from LAX to its home in Expo Park. Thousands of onlookers witnessed the shuttle move through L.A., with even more watching at home. The process took more than a year to plan every inch of Endeavour’s journey across the city. 

“There were a million people out lining the streets to watch the shuttle go by, which to me, says a lot about just the public interest in the space program,” said Peter Westwick, a  professor of the practice of thematic option and history, as well as the director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West’s Aerospace History Project.

Project coordinators and volunteers spent years preparing for the day when Endeavour could be displayed as if it were operational. The journey to this moment was a long time coming for many — especially those who have been with the center since its early days. 

“I have worked on this project for 34 years,” Phillips said. “The first 20 years was trying to get NASA to award us the space shuttle … The last dozen years have been figuring out the design, the engineering and the fundraising for how we would get this object from where it was [on] its old horizontal display to where you see it now.”

Westwick said the California Science Center, which was the 7th most visited museum in North America in 2019, is a “crucial channel” to educate the next generation in STEM. 

“One way to inspire young kids to go into STEM fields is by getting them hooked on the idea of space exploration,” Westwick said. “Some of them will go into STEM fields because of this interest and fascination with space. Other STEM-inspired kids will go into other fields, which then feeds into our national economic competitiveness.”

The Science Center currently averages 2.2 million visitors annually — 400,000 of whom were school children.

“The California Science Center, the times I’ve been there, it’s been very busy,” said Westwick. “People love coming, looking at these things. So, it’s a good way to get to know if we as a society are trying to get more kids inspired to study STEM.”

Six shuttles were built and operated between 1977 and 2011, with Endeavour being the last. NASA asked organizations to describe the “benefit to the nation,” as it wanted Endeavour to be used as a tool for learning. More than 20 institutions vied for the shuttle. 

“It was a very celebratory moment,” said Phillips, recalling the call he got telling him the Science Center received Endeavour. “We couldn’t believe it.”

As the successor to the Space Shuttle Atlantis, Endeavour served over 25 flights, totaling 7,179 hours in space. The shuttle was decommissioned in 2011.

Phillips wants the center to remain an open and accessible place for everyone to engage in air space and more broadly, exploration. 

“This is an invitation for people to learn about how this works, not just see it,” Phillips said. “To learn how to build it, how to operate it and get in the game of exploration.”

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