Evocative Endeavour – Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center

Space Transportation System (Shuttle) at the California Science Center ©Tim Jones
Space Transportation System STS-47 (Endeavour Space Shuttle) at the California Science Center.

Evocative Endeavour

I did kind of wish for a second or two today, staring up at the big, black, underbelly of Space Shuttle Endeavour – boxed away at the California Science Center in Los Angeles – that I’d made more of an effort to see  she or her sisters performing live.

Am I getting all mushy and romantic about a spacecraft now?   Well, maybe just a bit.  My wife Erin said she felt unexpectedly moved after our visit.  I’d set myself to appreciative-engineer-mode before I went in, but still felt like I was standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time; you’ve seen all the postcards  and  videos, and can’t  imagine the real deal adding anything new – but  it does.  That’s  twice I’ve been emotionally sucked in by an iconic cliché.  Shocking.

Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center ©Tim Jones
Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center.

Objects are evocative.  At one point I found myself back in my lab as a research student in Birmingham in 1986, hearing about the Challenger accident.  Then I’m back imagining all those tiles, engines, doors, and windows flying apart.

And there on Endeavour is that area of wing leading-edge, damaged on Columbia by falling debris during launch, causing her demise on re-entry in 2003 (more on that in this earlier post).

Rescue Hatch ©Tim Jones
Main Hatch
Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center ©Tim Jones
Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center



First Impressions

There is of course plenty of engineering to appreciate, and science behind it to ponder.  But my gut reaction is how big she is, the length of the cargo bay, and how….dirty .  It looks like she’s been treated like some science fiction fan might treat an Airfix model of the Millennium Falcon: roughed up, artificially distressed – so it looks like the real thing.  Except the distress, evidently manageable, is real.

Size perception is odd too.  I’ve seen video of the shuttle during ascent (in fact you can see it in Matt Mellis’s movie/iPad App called ‘Ascent’), where the ‘body flap’ – that piece below the engine in the picture below – is vibrating violently; it’s positively oscillating.  The flap looks small and flimsy on the film, but it’s a huge construction; the forces must be tremendous.

Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center ©Tim Jones
Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center
Flap ©Tim Jones


Cargo Door Hinges ©Tim Jones
Cargo Door Hinges



RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) ©Tim Jones
RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME)
RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) ©Tim Jones
RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) and port Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pod
RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME), Gimbal area. ©Tim Jones
RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME), Gimbal area
Gimbal area close-up ©Tim Jones
Gimbal area close-up
Main Engine ©Tim Jones
Main Engine



Nose Thrusters (Reaction Control System) ©Tim Jones
Nose Thrusters (Reaction Control System)
Nose Thrusters Close-up ©Tim Jones
Nose Thrusters Close-up
Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) Pods with thrusters ©Tim Jones
Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) Pods with thrusters


The famous tiles, part of the Shuttle’s Thermal Protection System (TPS), are unmistakable.  Designed not to ablate like the heat shields on the Apollo capsules, tiles do suffer wear and damage, and some had clearly been replaced with new ones for display.

The complexity and variation of tile design is striking.  If you think tiling round the bathroom wash-basin is tricky, take a look at the area round the main engine gimbals and thrusters of the Shuttle.  No wonder maintenance costs were high.

Tiles (part of Space Shuttle Thermal Protection System TPS) ©Tim Jones
Tiles (part of Space Shuttle Thermal Protection System TPS)
Tiles (part of Space Shuttle Thermal Protection System TPS) ©Tim Jones
Tiles (part of Space Shuttle Thermal Protection System TPS)
Tiles (part of Space Shuttle Thermal Protection System TPS) ©Tim Jones
Tiles (part of Space Shuttle Thermal Protection System TPS)
Tiles (part of Space Shuttle Thermal Protection System TPS) Close-up ©Tim Jones
Tiles (part of Space Shuttle Thermal Protection System TPS) Close-up


Earthquake Protection

Several sliding bearings, or seismic isolators, sit between the Shuttle and its supporting pillars, insulating Endeavour from the perils of Los Angeles’ earthquakes.  The idea is the Shuttle rocks around harmlessly until the shaking ground settles down.

Endeavour is mounted on Seismic Isolators to protect it from earthquake damage. ©Tim Jones
Endeavour is mounted on Seismic Isolators to protect it from earthquake damage.
Seismic Isolator Bearing Surfaces. ©Tim Jones
Seismic Isolator Bearing Surfaces


We saw Endeavour in temporary accommodation; it’s destined to be mounted vertically in a custom-designed building.  That said, the exhibition as it stands doesn’t feel temporary, and the associated display areas and accompanying audio-visuals describing California’s particular role in the Shuttle story and showing off various artifacts from the program – including, importantly, the Shuttle’s WC or ‘space potty’, are excellent.

Entry to the California Science Center is free, but there’s a very reasonable $2 entry charge or ticket booking fee to see Endeavour.

Entrance to Endeavour Area ©Tim Jones
Entrance to Endeavour Display Area
Simulated Mission Control ©Tim Jones
Simulated Mission Control
Space Shuttle Wheels ©Tim Jones
Space Shuttle Wheels
Display Area ©Tim Jones
California and artifacts display area
Space Potty ©Tim Jones
Space Potty


Parting Impressions

I need a Tee-shirt, right?
I need a Tee-shirt, right?

Even as we celebrate, the Space Shuttle program is criticised, particularly around issues of cost and safety, but also the scope of its achievements.  As always, it’s easy to find fault in hindsight, and judge historical decisions by the political and economic expedients of the present day.  Personally, I reckon we’d be in a much sorrier state had the program not gone ahead.  The Shuttle was the workhorse behind the International Space Station, the full learning from which I suspect has yet to be converted.  And Endeavour personally, so to speak, enabled the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Hubble Space Telescope can see clearly now thanks to Endeavour. (Model at Cal.Science.Center) ©Tim Jones
The Hubble Space Telescope can see clearly now thanks to Endeavour. (Model at Cal.Science.Center)

NASA is at a turning point, collaborating more closely with private partners and, most recently, other nations on its manned space program.  While the arrival of new entrants, working methods, and relationships are culturally refreshing, surely much of the knowledge and expertise behind them has its roots in the Shuttle and related programs.

Hopefully this note’s been short and sweet.  There’s no point my repeating loads of technical and historical information you can get from many sources: not least the NASA and California Science Center websites, which, like Endeavour, are both worth a visit.




Of Related Interest on Zoonomian

Matt Mellis Shares 30 Years of the Space Shuttle at the London Science Festival

Let’s Make A Comet

Having unaccountably failed to spot comet McNaught on its recent visit, I was compensated last week by a meeting with this artificial comet created at the Griffith Observatory .

Demonstrator Grace holds the artificial comet (Photo:Tim Jones)

Demonstrator Grace is holding the tangible product of last Friday’s  ‘Let’s Make A Comet’ event, held in the Griffith’s Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theatre.   And I have to say, it was one of the best half hour’s worth of science communication I’ve seen.

I think the shear fun value had a lot to do with it.  And although the show was geared to a young audience, there was no dumbing down of the science or talking down to the kids.  Presentation style and jokes were witty rather than silly, patronising, or childish; and references to popular culture, like Harry Potter and the Transformers movie, were entertaining but topic-related.  The professionalism of the two demonstrators / presenters really made the show, and it’s taking nothing away from the scientific knowledge and skills these guys have, to say they were genuine entertainers.

The comet was made by mixing together common substances containing the elements found in real comets.  So that meant shaking up water, sand, carbon, and cleaning fluid (ammonia) together with dry-ice, or frozen CO2, in a plastic bag; the details are here on Griffith’s Teacher Resources page.

Griffith Observatory (Photo:Tim Jones)

I liked the hidden plan to pull an audience in on the promise of seeing a comet being made, then to educate them on broader themes and related topics; the practical demonstration happening only at the end of the session.   There was nothing sinister in that though, and it all went down well with the bulk of the show taken up with a mix of talk, slides, videos and Q&A breaks.  A lot of ground was covered, ranging from the chemical and physical requirements for life, to how the solar system is thought to have formed, and a pretty good introduction to astrobiology – including a discussion of extremophile life-forms.

Lecture theatre events are inevitably going to be a little one-way, but there was good engagement through the Q&As and frequent questions back to the audience. And it’s not like this was a public consultation on the risks of nanotechnology, the material being relatively uncontroversial.

Having the finished item available for inspection after the show was a big plus, and I’m sure the memory of it will for many people be a lasting anchor for the science they picked up.

A Bone to Pick with Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Before heading back to LA from Santa Barbara last week, Erin and I made a final stop at the local natural history museum.  I’ve blogged before about how great this place is. Not the largest of museums, but somehow managing to cover all the traditional departments through locally themed exhibits – and all in the most beautiful location.

whale skull at santa barbara museum of natural history
Whale skull at Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, June 2010 (Photo:Tim Jones)

In the 18 months since our last visit, two new exhibitions have appeared, and the bird gallery has reopened following renovation.  But to our surprise, all that is left of the museum’s flagship exhibit – a 72ft Blue Whale skeleton – is it’s head.

The complete whale skeleton in 2008 (Photo:Tim Jones)

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
Nice spot..... (Photo:Tim Jones)

For the 20 year old skeleton, one of only five on display in the USA, is in need of a major overhaul.  The skull will be completely replaced, and the remaining bones will be refurbished or replaced.

The $500,000 needed to complete the work is being raised by inviting donors to sponsor individual bones and sections of the skeleton through the ‘Buy-A-Bone’ scheme (links to the Museum’s website).

The right to name this particular Balaenoptera musculus has already gone – for a cool $100k.  But the skull and vertebral column are still up for grabs at $75k and $137k respectively; most of the ribs are available at $25k each, the left flipper at $13k, or one of twelve carpal bones can be yours for the pocket money sum of $500.

So go ahead – pick your bone!

Search for Life in Second Life

A little bleary-eyed this morning, having stayed up to watch the Kepler launch on NASA TV.

Kepler’s mission is to locate rocky earth-sized planets around other stars.  The satellite carries an instrument called a photometer, or light meter, that measures the very small changes in a star’s brightness that occur when an orbiting planet passes in front of it.

The real interest is in worlds that orbit in a ‘habitable zone,’ not too near and not too far from their star, where liquid water, and possibly life, could exist.

The build-up to Kepler has prompted much discussion around the possibility of extra-terrestrial life.  A couple of weeks back I joined ‘The Search for Life Beyond Earth‘  at the Royal Institution.  Last night, via a live feed into Second Life from Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, I joined Scott Gaudi of Ohio State University on a ‘Quest for our Origins – The Search for Other Worlds and Life in The Universe,’ including a review of the latest techniques for remotely identifying earth-like planets.

The technical quality of this event was excellent, with live streaming video, multi-screen slides, and sound.

There is another event tonight at 10 a.m Pacific Time (6 pm UK), about the early universe and the cosmic microwave background.  Just time for you to sign up; see you there (SL name Erasmus Magic).

Here are some photos from last night:

Auditorium in SciLands
Auditorium in SciLands

Scott Gaudi speaking from the Adler Planetarium into Second Life
Scott Gaudi speaking from the Adler Planetarium into Second Life
Multi-screen live presentation
Multi-screen live presentation
The Quest for our Origins
The Quest for our Origins
Scott Gaudi
Scott Gaudi
Microlensing (slide from Scott Gaudi's presentation)
Microlensing (slide from Scott Gaudi's presentation)
Colourful characters in SL
Colourful characters in SL

Zoonomian Launches in Second Life

It was inevitable.   The indefinable, yet almost tangible buzz of excitement that has for weeks held cyberspace in a grip of nervous anticipation: it all  makes sense now.  For yesterday evening, to tumultuous public acclaim, the Zoonomian Science Centre opened its doors to residents of Second Life.

Zoonomian Science Centre in SL
Zoonomian Science Centre in SL

O.K. – if my brother hadn’t monopolised model railway construction when we were kids, maybe I’d have gotten this sort of thing out of my system earlier.  But all the same, putting this creation together has been a lot of fun and there is a serious side to it all.

A visitor on the Conference Floor on opening night
A visitor explores the Conference Floor on opening night

Virtual worlds have been with us for a while, as has their use for promoting interaction in science and technology; and indeed, for science communication.

There are many real world businesses, universities, museums, and even embassies represented in Second Life; most of which you can just turn up to and walk right in.  I particularly like NASA’a site, despite their copy restrictions preventing my placing the Saturn V launch vehicle as sentinel to the ZSC.   The NASA site is part of what is probably the major nexus for science and technology in Second Life: the  SciLands Virtual Continent.   The Nature Publishing Group and Macmillan Publishing also have a substantial SL presence at the Elucian IslandsSecond Nature – which hosts events such as the recent Virtual Conference on Climate Change and CO2 Storage, held in association with my own Imperial College.

Second Life is the best known virtual world, but there are dozens of others – some, like OpenSim, snapping at its heels.

Entrance lobby
Entrance lobby (I'm most comfortable constructing as a meerkat)

I’ve previously discussed Second Life here, in the context of societies with boundless resource; and most recently here, when I first bought land and installed a giant gibbon on it.  (If anybody is missing the gibbon, don’t worry, she and others are likely to return with a vengeance.)   In the former post, I referred to owner Linden’s claim that 70,000 thousand residents were  ‘in-world’ at any one time; I’ve seen  between 45,000 and 75,000, so that seems realistic.

Entrance lobby and conference level
Entrance lobby and conference level

So, much more importantly – what am I going to do with this space?

As a conventional museum with exhibits, there are no limits –  save those dictated by the bounds of copyright and creative ingenuity; but mainly cost – of time and money.   Media: such as web pages, music, and movies, can be streamed into the Centre via two media panels.  The default is set to this blog, with which you can interact from within SL.

There is also the potential for groups to meet up at the centre to  share media materials, films, podcasts etc, and to hold mini-conferences to which a broader public might be invited.

Conference Level
Conference Level

And I guess this brings us to the big difference bewteen a straight web page interaction and an interaction in Second Life.  SL and its ilk are spaces where people who are geographically far apart in the real world can meet to share content and have discussions.   You might say you could do that sitting at your PC?  But then of course that’s exactly where you would be.  The claim is that a virtual world gives you more degrees of freedom for expression.  For sure, if during an SL discussion at the conference table, a guest gets up and orders a drink from the bar (did I not mention the bar?), then spends the rest of the meeting pacing around, that would send a certain kind of message.

If you want to visit the Zoonomian Science Centre, you will need to register for free at Second Life and get yourself a name.  Then come to this location in the Haddath Region.   Haddath has ‘mature’ status – so adults only please.   The Centre is normally open to all, but just come back later if not; it just means I’m working on the place and don’t want to jump out of my skin when someone walks up behind me and starts chatting.

Of course, the main pupose of the Zoonomian Science Centre has been as a learning exercise for me; Second Nature can relax after all.  That said:  “from small acorns……”

Oh yes – if you are reading this at the Centre…..Welcome !   Enjoy!

No Space For Me

The secret to becoming an astronaut is that you have to really, really, really want to be one.

Right Stuff
Right Stuff

Oh yes – and to be considered for the European Space Agency’s 2008 recruitment round currently in progress (they recruit only every 15 years or so) you also need to be the right age and nationality.

So we were told tonight by French astronaut Jean-Francois Clervoys at the London Science Museum’s Dana Centre. Three time shuttle astronaut Clervoys, with 675 space-hours under his belt, joined a panel of experts in space history, medicine, and psychology to educate and entertain the forty or so of us volunteering for ‘Space Station Dana’.

But it wasn’t all one way.  Split into teams, and clutching our Astronaut Training and Selection Manuals, we set off on a range of psychological, physical, and knowledge tests that were fun – and sufficiently taxing – to get a flavour of what 21st century ‘Right Stuff’ is all about.


One of the exercises involved an imaginary manned trip to Mars.  It takes 20 minutes for communications to travel from Earth to Mars, so any issues with the spacecraft once it’s a good distance from Earth will need sorting without the help of real time chit-chat with engineers back home.  So our psychological test was based on that scenario, the idea being to get things right first time through good planning and authority, all the time maintaining good relations and respect in the team (they used a Post-it/paper-clip tower building exercise, conducted in total silence after an initial planning session).

Contrary to popular belief, Clervoys said, you don’t have to have super-human qualities to be an astronaut.   So what are the qualifications?  Well, you’ll typically be 27 to 37 years of age – more so your sponsors get a sensible return-on-investment in working years than some set-in-stone physiological reason.  It also helps if you have a PhD in a relevant discipline and can speak Russian.  Then there’s the raft of psychological tests – which are pretty tough.  You will need to be physically fit; but again, that’s more about not dropping out of the programme and your career through ill health than an ability to withstand physical extremes.

If you get selected after all that, it’s 18 month basic training in Europe, the USA, and Russia; and you’re on your way to the dream!

And in winding up the evening, a dream is exactly how Jean-Francois relived his adventure for us, describing the effect of dimming the shuttle’s cabin lights with the sun and earth behind the spacecraft, and looking at the “milky way like a highway” in the total blackness of space.

Good luck!

Thinktank – Birmingham Science Museum

Thinktank, Birmingham, UK (Photo: Tim Jones)
Thinktank, Birmingham, UK (Photo: Tim Jones)

It must be over ten years since I last visited the Science Museum in Birmingham (UK), so yesterday’s visit to the present incarnation at Birmingham’s Millenium Point was way overdue. Now called Thinktank, the museum’s new name reflects more than simple rebranding; there have been some real content changes. The most obvious change is the introduction of the Science Centre format.

Thinktank Birmingham: a mix of science centre....
Thinktank Birmingham: a mix of science centre....
And 'conventional' museum.
And 'conventional' museum. (Photo:Tim Jones)

On reflection, the old Science Museum was always ahead of its time when it came to interactivity. The traditional glass-cased exhibits featured in abundance, but many could be brought to life by pressing of a button, activating a motor, sliding a piston, turning a cam, or rotating a prism. Modern science centres have taken interactivity to new levels, and the glass cases have largely gone, but Birmingham led the way.

The new complements the old in Birmingham
The new compliments the old in Birmingham

I enjoyed the agreeable hybrid of Science Centre and older style displays at Thinktank. Birmingham and the ‘Black Country’, as the region is still referred to in deference to its industrial past, has a rich history in science and technology; the evidence of that history needs a home too. Hence we find Thinktank Level ‘0’ populated by Boulton and Watt steam engines, plus other heavy engineering legacy exhibits from the former site: the steam locomotive City of Birmingham, and a speed record-breaking car. Shadows of the region’s former industries and crafts are also represented: jewellery, watchmaking, and gunmaking (the Birmingham gun barrel proofing house is still intact within a quarter mile of the site).

All in all a good day out and well worth the visit.

Find Out More

Thinktank – Birmingham Science Museum at Millenium Point, Birmingham