The Final Frontier: LA-area Space Sites

LOS ANGELES -- Southern California has unmatched pedigree when it comes to its place in space-exploration history. From serving as a veritable assembly line for many of NASA's most notable spacecraft (all of the space shuttles were assembled here) to being the birthplace of space pioneers such as astronaut Sally Ride to continuing to be home base to ambitious space-travel companies like SpaceX, Southern California has been essential in enabling both that "one small step for man" and that "one giant leap for mankind."

Now, the region will get another badge on its proverbial space suit when the space shuttle Endeavour arrives here this fall. After the Endeavour is flown to Los Angeles International Airport and prepped for public viewing, the shuttle will be transported 12 miles through the streets of LA on Oct. 12 and 13 and will begin its exhibit at the California Science Center on Oct. 30. Like the sun, the Endeavour will be the center of LA's veritable universe of space-related sites and, after its exhibit in the Samuel Oschin Space Shuttle Endeavour Display Pavilion, will literally be the centerpiece of the yet-to-be-built Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center addition to the California Science Center.

Local and visiting space-travel enthusiasts can complement their visit to the California Science Center by making their own explorations throughout Southern California to see other space landmarks. Here are a few worth checking out. Blast off!

OBSERVE AND REPORT: GRIFFITH OBSERVATORY AND THE DONALD E. BIANCHI PLANETARIUM

Situated atop Griffith Park, the Griffith Observatory offers far more than stunning art-deco architecture and one of the best views of the LA basin. The Observatory is also home to the 285-seat Samuel Oschin Planetarium, which puts on its enlightening "Centered in the Universe" show eight to 10 times daily. The Observatory's hundreds of exhibits make a trip to the top of that hill an essential one for space junkies. In particular, the 9,000-pound Zeiss Telescope can accommodate as many as 600 viewings per night, giving visitors an unmatched view of the moon and stars on a clear Los Angeles night.

The Observatory doesn't corner the market on LA planetariums, however. The Donald E. Bianchi Planetarium at Cal State University at Northridge opens to the public for shows every two weeks and recreates the night sky on its 40-foot dome with the five visible planets and more than 2,000 stars.

START THE COUNTDOWN: JPL AND KIDSPACE

Since 1940, Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has played a major role in U.S. space-exploration achievements, including constructing the first U.S. satellite in 1958 and building Cassini-Huygens, the first U.S. spacecraft to orbit Saturn. Now, JPL offers free two-hour tours of its Pasadena facility for both visiting adults and schools as well as other educational groups that want to learn about this institution's 70-plus-year history. Each tour includes the "Journey to the Planets and Beyond" multimedia presentation.

Meanwhile, a short drive away in Brookside Park next to the Rose Bowl, Kidspace Children's Museum has more than two-dozen interactive exhibits designed for children ages 1 to 10, not to mention streams, gardens and daily activities. Tykes can learn first-hand about what it takes to get an object into space by checking out the Gavin Physics Forest, where visitors can create mini (and, yes, safe) bottle rockets and study gravitational acceleration with the Ball Bounce exhibit. The Museum is open daily during the summer and every day except Mondays during the rest of the year.

LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION: SPACE-FILMING SITES

Space junkies and film buffs can simultaneously feed both hobbies by taking the Studio Tour through the production backlot at Universal Studios Hollywood to view the huge outdoor commercial 747 airplane crash set built for War of the Worlds, directed by Steven Spielberg.  Those looking to turn on their heartlights can venture to the Seven Hills neighborhood of Tujunga, about 15 miles north of Downtown Los Angeles. That neighborhood of tract houses is where much of Spielberg's 1982 blockbuster "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" was filmed and where boy-hero Elliot and his buddies "took flight" on their bikes. 

FIRST-HAND EXPERIENCE: IFLY

LA wouldn't be LA without a little make-believe, so for those looking for a little anti-gravity action like astronauts get to experience, iFly Hollywood Indoor Skydiving (at Universal CityWalk is there for you. iFly uses its "vertical wind tunnel" to customize a flying experience for experts and novices alike.

TOUCHDOWN: EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE

Few military bases are more closely affiliated with space exploration than the Antelope Valley's Edwards Air Force Base and its adjoining Rogers Dry Lake Bed. Located about a two-hour drive north of Downtown Los Angeles, the base offers four-hour tours for the general public offered twice a month, usually on Fridays. Included in the tour are visits to the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum, whose exhibits include the North American YF-100A, the first fighter plane to break the sound barrier in level flight in 1953.

SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE: TOMORROW AERONAUTICAL MUSEUM AND FLIGHT PATH LEARNING CENTER-MUSEUM

Not all of the space-related activity is north of LA. Compton's Tomorrow Aeronautical Museum whose sponsors include Boeing, offers visitors a chance to see experimental airplanes and helicopters as well as tributes to military and aerospace heroes. The Museum, located at Compton/Woodley Airport, is open to the public every day except for major holidays.

Meanwhile, a couple of miles away, the Flight Path Museum and Learning Center alongside Los Angeles International Airport features exhibits and a library tracing aviation and aerospace history all the way back to the bi-plane era. Flight Path is open Tuesday through Saturday and is free.

LAST RESPECTS: 123 ASTRONAUT E S ONIZUKA STREET

Many locals associate the address of 123 Astronaut E S Onizuka Street as the heart of Downtown Los Angeles' Little Tokyo district, where whimsical Japanese architecture and artifacts run hand in hand with some of the best noodle houses in the city. Fewer people are likely to be familiar with the street's namesake. Hawaii-born Japanese American astronaut Ellison Onizuka was amember of NASA for eight years before dying in the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. All of which makes a visit to Little Tokyo a fun – if unconventional – way to pay tribute to a space pioneer.

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