Recently I returned from a trip to California. While this was a family vacation, it did give me the chance to visit some fantastic space and aviation related attractions reflecting the state’s rich aerospace heritage. Here’s a quick roundup of what I saw…
On the air side of things, I guess the first big thing to mention is that the flight from London Heathrow to San Francisco was on an Airbus A380, my first trip on the world’s largest airliner. It’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer size of the plane, especially the wing area. Whether or not it turns out to be a long-term commercial success, it’s certainly an impressive aircraft.
A visit to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate park meant an opportunity to see the Incoming! show at the Morrison Planetarium. Far from being a traditional planetarium with a single central projector, the Morrison features a system of projectors around the periphery of the screen allowing a range of effects and presentations that would be impossible in a more traditional facility. That said, I found Incoming! a bit too ‘thrill ride’ for my tastes as we swooped in and out of meteor craters – personally I prefer a slightly more relaxing planetarium experience! The show itself was very good with up-to-date content on the tracking of near Earth objects and the Chelyabinsk incident and I certainly wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from seeing it, maybe I was just jet-lagged.
Onwards to LA
Having headed down the coast from San Francisco to LA (passing both NASA Ames and Vandenberg AFB – other tours for other days) one of the main things I was looking forward to seeing was the shuttle orbiter Endeavour at the California Science Center. Having never managed to see a shuttle launch or landing, I was really excited to see one of the remaining orbiters up close but before getting to that, there were a number of other notable space and aviation exhibits to view.
Pulling into the parking lot we were greeted by a Lockheed A-12, in this case the two seat ‘Titanium Goose’ trainer version that was used extensively at Groom Lake to train CIA pilots. Mounted on pylons and still resplendent in the two tone titanium and black scheme, it’s still an awe-inspiring aircraft. On entering the main hall, the staircase is closely shadowed by a Northrop T-38 trainer and the prototype of it’s proposed F-20 fighter counterpart.
The space exhibit covers both human and robotic explorations but the most striking items are the prominently displayed Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules. The Apollo Command Module on display is CSM-111 and was the last of the type to fly during the Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) in July 1975. Shown hatch-open and encased in protective perspex it’s still easy to gain an appreciation for how cramped and spartan these vehicles were for the crews who spent so long within them travelling to and from the Moon or on orbital flights such as the ASTP. CSM-111 is notable for an incident that occurred during descent when Brand, Stafford and Slayton were accidentally exposed to toxic oxidiser fumes venting from the capsule’s RCS system leading to the hospitalisation of the crew post recovery.
The Gemini capsule on display is from Gemini 11 as flown by the Astronaut Office’s dynamic duo, Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon. Taking place during September 1966, Gemini 11 was notable for using the docked Agena to boost the vehicle to a then record altitude of 739 nautical miles and also conducting a tether experiment to generate small amounts of artificial gravity. It’s always quite a sobering experience to see just how compact the Gemini cabin is and spare a thought for Jim Lovell and Frank Borman who spent nearly 14 days crammed in these tight confines during Gemini 7. It’s also notable how aircraft-like the Gemini control panels look – no wonder it proved so popular with the test pilots amongst the Astronaut corps.
One of the less heralded achievements of the Gemini programme was to pioneer controlled lifting reentry to allow for more precise landings. Gemini 11’s heat shield still bears the unmistakably asymmetrical marks from its fiery descent to prove this.
The third capsule on display is an early Mercury test item used, amongst other missions, for the suborbital Mercury Redstone 2 (MR-2) flight when it carried HAM the chimpanzee on a wilder than expected ride due to issues with the Redstone booster. The consequence of this was that von Braun’s team felt it necessary to conduct one final unmanned test to verify the system’s performance, meaning a delay for Alan Shepard’s planned MR-3 flight which likely cost the American the title of first man in space.
Mission marks visible at the top of the capsule speak to its later life as a recovery test item. It’s also interesting to note that as one of the first batch of Mercury capsules, MR-2 features the small porthole and externally opened hatch as per Shepard’s capsule. From MR-4 onwards, all Mercury capsules featured the larger window and explosively-released quick open hatch.
Also on display in this area are an Apollo era spacesuit as worn by Command Module Pilot Ken Mattingly during Apollo 15. It’s an amazing privilege to be able to see an original Apollo suit at such close quarters and appreciate the workmanship it represents. Situated beside a Mercury suit, it is striking just how quickly the ‘state of the art’ had moved on with regards to space suits during the 1960s.
It’s easy to look at the Shuttle (or more precisely the Space Transportation System or STS) programme now as something of a dead-end. Born out of a requirement for a reliable, frequently flying space truck to service the multiple components of NASA’s Integrated Program Plan in the late 1960s, the shuttle became the sole survivor of this grand vision but didn’t emerge from the process unscathed. Far from the fully reusable two-stage-to-orbit system originally envisioned, the shuttle as built was a compromised vehicle relying on solid rocket boosters, an expendable fuel tank and a worryingly fragile thermal protection system. Where NASA estimates in the early 1970s estimated at least 580 flights during a twelve year operational lifetime, in reality only 135 missions were flown in 30 years. Two orbiters and their crews were lost during this time due to a fatal combination of the system’s vulnerabilities and poor managerial decisions. But, for all of it’s compromises and shortcomings the shuttle orbiter still remains an awe-inspiring piece of engineering when witnessed first-hand.
The California Science Center is eventually planning to display Endeavour as part of a full stack with the recently acquired external tank, but for now the orbiter remains horizontal allowing the visitor a close up view of those troublesome tiles. Endeavour still bears the scars of her 25 trips into space, but it is the sheer scale of this spacecraft that really captured the imagination. Although the Saturn V remains the heavyweight champion of the rocket world, there’s something massively impressive about the size of the orbiter and the fact that each of them flew repeatedly, especially when compared to the tiny capsules on display in the main building. This scale alone still speaks to the original ambition of the shuttle project and I must admit feeling slightly saddened to know that the RS-25 engines adorning Endeavour are merely replicas for show while the real engines – triumphs of reusability – are prepared for a one-way trip to the depths of the Atlantic after powering a future SLS launch.
Endeavour is displayed alongside a supporting exhibition of artefacts including a SpaceHab module and film covering her final journey through the streets of Los Angeles. Plans for the proposed ‘full-stack’ building are shown and look magnificent. I look forward to seeing Endeavour again in this configuration and wish the California Science Center good luck in making this happen.
One final element that made our visit to the Science Center even more special was that it gave me a chance to meet up with a friend made over Twitter, Erik Reedy. Erik’s grandfather, Jerry Reedy, had a long and distinguished career in the service of the NACA and NASA at what is now the Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB in the Mojave desert. While there Jerry bore witness to a golden age of aviation from X-1 series rocket planes, through the X-15, lifting bodies to the shuttle and beyond. Erik had also worked at the facility and was generous enough to share some items from his grandfather’s collection with me as well as some NASA history publications covering the administration’s pioneering flight test work and the reminiscences of those involved. It was a privilege to talk to Erik and hear more about his family’s proud association with NASA – I hope it proves the first meeting of many.
To Pasadena and beyond!
Having been born in the early 1970s, I’m slightly too young to consider myself a child of Apollo. My first actual mission memories are of the two Viking missions to Mars in the mid 70s and the iconic images returned by their amazing landers. Beyond this my teenage years were interspersed with the amazing achievements of the Voyager missions, bringing new knowledge with their every planetary encounter and building up a vivid picture of a dynamic and endlessly fascinating solar system where previously we had only known blurry dots through telescope lenses. With these memories still firmly in place it was a pleasure to finally visit the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the centre responsible for these and so many of our other robotic emissaries.
JPL holds something of a unique status within NASA, being managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and was originally founded out of the efforts of a small group of pioneering rocket enthusiasts, the so called Suicide Squad, in the 1940s. The facility, or at least the parts accessible during the public tour, still retains a very academic, campus feel. Beginning with a short film in the von Kármán auditorium (named for Caltech’s famed aerodynamicist Theodore von Kármán), the tour included the chance to browse the JPL museum, view clean rooms and see the Space Flight Operations Facility – JPL’s equivalent to Houston’s mission control.
There were plenty of opportunities to get close to models of many of the spacecraft that have contributed so much to humanity’s knowledge of our cosmic neighbourhood from Voyager and Cassini to current missions such as Juno. Many of the JPL Mars rovers are included, from the diminutive Sojourner carried to Mars aboard the Pathfinder mission, through to a full-scale engineering model of Curiosity. Although the clean room we saw was currently empty, first pieces were being organised before the construction of the Mars 2020 rover mission which will in many ways be Curiosity’s twin. The centre’s heritage is proudly displayed on the clean room walls in the form of mission badges and it is quite sobering to imagine just where some of the spacecraft that had occupied this facility now are.
The Space Flight Operations Facility gave the tour a chance to get better acquainted with the workings of the Deep Space Network. Currently handling communications with a number of missions including Juno, the Deep Space Network consists of three large sites spread around the globe aiming to provide as close to uninterrupted communications with deep space missions as orbital mechanics will allow. Although the National Park Service bestowed Historic Landmark status on this facility in 1985, it remains at the very forefront of our ever expanding knowledge of the solar system. For all the cutting age science still taking place at the centre JPL still proudly display a model of Explorer 1, America’s first satellite and an early example of the scientific value of robotic spacecraft, in pride of place.
From JPL it was a short trip back along the freeway to Griffith Park to see the magnificent Griffith Observatory. Almost as famous now for the views it affords of downtown LA as those of the heavens it is still an iconic building and offers visitors the chance to look through the 12 inch refracting Zeiss telescope and observe the Sun via the Coelostat. Griffith Observatory is also home to many great exhibitions as well as the Samuel Oschin Planetarium. This is a far more traditional example than the Morrison in San Francisco with its classic Zeiss star projector. A number of different shows run throughout the day, but we saw Centered in the Universe looking at humanity’s understanding of our place in the cosmos. It was an excellent presentation and highly recommended!
Some unfinished business…
In 2003 while travelling across the Mojave we visited the Blackbird Airpark at the gates of Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale. Unfortunately it was closed that day, so although I came back with a bunch of photos of the exhibits through a chainlink fence, I’ve always hoped to get back there and see these amazing planes properly. Thankfully, with a short detour over the mountains agreed to, I now had the chance.
I guess if aviation has any sacred sites, then this part of the high desert must be one of them. The skies above the Mojave have witnessed the first flights through Mach 1 through to Mach 6.7, from Yeager’s historic X-1 flight to Pete Knight’s record breaker in X-15A-2. They have seen numerous altitude records including the X-15’s leaps into space, marks only bettered relatively recently above the Mojave by SpaceShipOne as it captured the XPrize. While I would have loved to visit the Air Force Flight Test (AFFT) museum at Edwards AFB – scene of so many of those historic flights – that simply wasn’t possible on this trip. Fortunately the Antelope Valley is extremely proud of its aerospace heritage and there are many displays of the groundbreaking vehicles that have populated its skies.
The Blackbird Airpark is an annex of the AFFT museum and houses many of the incredible aeronautical achievements for which the Lockheed Skunk Works became so famous. Starting with the U-2, the model on display here is the sole surviving example of the ‘D’ modification, with a small second cockpit for an observer. This aircraft served at Edwards AFB prior to its retirement and was used in various airborne early warning system tests. Beyond the U-2 are a pair of Blackbirds, which at first glance could both be taken as SR-71s but in fact one represents the aircraft’s super secret CIA heritage, prior to its more public Air Force career.
The A-12, while superficially similar to the SR-71, is the original incarnation of Kelly Johnson’s Mach 3 wonder plane. Identifiable by it’s slightly narrower, sharper nose profile and its single cockpit, the A-12 was given the incongruous nickname ‘Oxcart’ and operated out of Groom Lake, Nevada. While the A-12 was originally designed with overflights of the Soviet Union in mind, its (acknowledged) operational career was restricted to a deployment to South East Asia in the late ‘60s. The A-12 was soon succeeded by the SR-71 as the spy plane mission passed from the CIA to the USAF. The SR-71 was slightly slower and heavier than the A-12, although no official speed or altitude marks were ever set by the Oxcart. With a second cockpit and wider range of sensor options, the SR-71 served into the 1990s and retained the family’s proud record for never succumbing to enemy fire.
Lurking by the Airpark’s fence is an altogether rarer piece of Skunk Works history – the D-21 drone. Developed as a way of overflying denied airspace without risking a pilot, the D-21 was ramjet powered and capable of Mach 5. The original plan was to launch the drone from the back of a converted A-12 (designated M-21) in international airspace – the drone would need to be travelling at high supersonic speeds to allow the ramjet to ignite. Once its overflight was complete, the D-21 would head back for international waters where it would jettison the sensor platform and exposed film for recovery before self-destructing. Although initial flight tests were performed an accident occurred when a D-21 failed to separate cleanly from the M-21 leading to a collision which destroyed both aircraft and cost the life of one of the mothership’s crew. Following this accident, Kelly Johnson halted the programme although D-21s were later successfully launched with rocket boosters from B-52 bombers.
Whereas in 2003 the Blackbird Airpark stood alone, it is now complemented by the neighbouring Joe Davies Heritage Airpark housing a wide range of historic aircraft, many with direct links to the Antelope Valley or its famed test pilots. I won’t list all of the exhibits here, but a quick look here will show you more details. Some of the more unusual items on display are related to the shuttle programme including one of the two converted Boeing 747 carrier aircraft (N911NA) which dominates the skyline on approach to the airpark from the west. Close by is the Space Shuttle Escape Vehicle Test System, a unique item that was used in conjunction with a rocket sled to test the ejection system used on the Enterprise Approach and Landing Tests and the first four orbital test flights of Columbia. During these flights only two astronauts were aboard the orbiter, so an ejection system based on that carried by the SR-71 could be carried for use during certain flight regimes. Once the test phase of the programme was over and larger crews were to be carried, the ejection seats were initially disable, then later removed from Columbia leaving no effective form of launch escape from the orbiter. None of the other spacefaring orbiters ever had the escape system installed.
Other notable exhibits include a number of first generation US jets including the classic F-86 Sabre and a Lockheed T-33 as well as many of the ‘Century Series’ that followed them including the F-100 Super Sabre, F-101 Voodoo and F-105 Thunderchief. Sadly the park’s F-104 was in the workshop during our visit.
A couple of other interesting items related to the Mojave’s rich test flight legacy are the Lockheed-Martin X-55A Advanced Composite Cargo Aircraft (ACCA) and NASA Dryden’s old workhorse Lockheed C-140 JetStar.
One final stop
On arrival back in the Bay Area, there was one final stop I wanted to make. A short BART and bus ride from downtown San Francisco, the USS Hornet Museum in Alameda offers an amazing chance to look around an historic Essex Class carrier with some very special space connections. In the twilight of her career, USS Hornet was involved in the recovery operations for both Apollos 11 and 12. This heritage is now celebrated with a display of space related items on the hanger deck including boilerplate Gemini and Apollo capsules as well as the Mobile Quarantine Facility used during the recovery of Apollo 14. Although an SH-3 Sea King is displayed in the ’66’ livery of the aircraft that recovered the first sets of moonwalkers, this is in fact a helicopter from USS Wasp that recovered Gemini 4 in 1965 which has been repainted to resemble ‘66’ following that aircraft’s loss.
A small exhibition accompanies these exhibits giving some context for Apollo’s race to the Moon as well as the US Navy’s role in supporting the safe recovery of the astronauts.
The USS Hornet Museum offers the visitor the chance to literally walk in the footsteps of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins and is certainly worth seeking out for any space buffs with a day to kill in the Bay Area.
At this point I really need to say a few special ‘Thank You’s:
Firstly I have to thank my wife and son for their incredible patience in indulging my love of all things aerospace. We didn’t spend our whole vacation hanging round old air and spacecraft (honestly!) but they were more than reasonable about allowing me to spend those extra minutes photographing yet another lump of finely crafted titanium that quite possibly wasn’t as interesting to them as it was to me!
I must also that Erik Reedy again. It’s always a pleasure to meet a fellow enthusiast and it was a real privilege to be able to share in some of Erik’s family history. I hope we get to meet again soon!
I’d also like to thank Sarah Cruddas for pointing me in the direction of the USS Hornet Museum which would have been easy to miss otherwise.
Finally, a big thank you to all of the knowledgable and friendly staff and tour guides who did so much to make these experiences all the more enjoyable.
Here are some links to the places mentioned in this post. Please leave a comment if you have any questions, corrections or other feedback.
The California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco
California Science Center, Los Angeles
NASA JPL, Pasadena
Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles
Blackbird Airpark, Palmdale
Joe Davies Heritage Airpark, Palmdale
USS Hornet Museum, Alameda