Monday, December 5, 2011

Space, the Final Frontier

This week, I visited two points of interest situated in different parts of SoCal but which have a common theme:  the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey and the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

I started off at the Columbia Memorial Space Center.  It's a sleek, tiny, two-story structure situated on what used to be the Rockwell NASA plant in the city of Downey.  Some history:  Downey is the birthplace of the Apollo space program and the Space Shuttle, and for over 70 years, NASA had a test facility there.  In 1999, cutbacks put an end to the city's NASA affiliation, but the center opened in 2009 to honor Downey's place in the history of space exploration.
Columbia Memorial Space Center

time line display inside center

The center offers a hands-on, educational experience and engages its mostly adolescent visitors to marvel at the history and the future of space science.  There are many interactive exhibits that allow visitors to sample technology utilized during space exploration.  For example, there are working robotic arms that one can control to pick up objects.  And there are simulation booths where one can pilot and land a space shuttle or maneuver modules on/off a space station.  It's all pretty cool, but the facility as a whole and its exhibits are obviously designed towards engaging little kids.  If I were still in the 3rd grade, I'd find this place pretty neat.  Still, I found many displays and demonstrations fairly educational and cool.  The staff are very patient with kids and enthusiastic when explaining things.
hydrolic rocket launcher

flight simulator
creepy life-size space suit

But the facility is tiny.  So tiny that I probably only spent a total of a half hour there which was ample time to examine everything.  Still, I don't begrudge the $5 admission because the center clearly attempts to promote wonder and enthusiasm about space science so I'm happy to contribute.

After I was done with the Columbia Center, I drove to Los Feliz (the affluent neighborhood in which the observatory resides) for lunch where I learned that it's impossible to find parking.  There were three eateries in my guidebook in proximity that sounded promising, but I drove the same 5-block radius for about a half hour before I gave up and ended up eating at a random Thai restaurant I chanced upon in neighboring Hollywood.  Still, my lunch was okay.  I ordered the bbq chicken (not bad) and a papaya salad (pungent & refreshing). 
The papaya salad was very good.

After lunch, I headed to Griffith Observatory.  This was my first visit inside the observatory though I've been in its proximity many times.  (I occasionally hike in Griffith Park and when I do, I park my car in the observatory lot).
Griffith Observatory

The observatory was built in 1933 after industrialist and philanthropist, Griffith J. Griffith (yes, his first name is the same as his last name)--who'd already donated over 3,000 acres to Los Angeles to build a municipal park--willed additional funds to build an observatory, exhibit hall, and planetarium on the donated land.  The observatory sits atop a slope on Mount Hollywood, and one can see the Hollywood sign nearby.


I was pleased to recognize the Art Deco architecture.  Inside, I likewise recognized the Hugo Ballin murals decorating the main lobby walls and ceiling (his art also decorated One Bunker Hill that I'd seen during my Art Deco tour).  But in the main lobby, the big attraction was this:
Foucault's Pendulum
another view

This is the 2nd Foucault's Pendulum I've seen.  The first occasion was in Paris, and I immediately thought of my friend, Fluffycat, when I saw the Griffith Observatory version since she missed the opportunity to see the Parisian one, to her regret.  Perhaps she can visit Griffith Observatory when she is next in L.A.  Anyway.

Where to start describing the awesomeness that is the Griffith Observatory?  I could list everything that I saw, but that would be boring.  How does it compare to Columbia Memorial Space Center?  There is no comparison.  Though earnest, the Columbia Center is an amuse-bouche to the 15-course banquet that is the Griffith Observatory.  I mentioned above that I spent only a half hour at the Columbia center whereas I spent 4 hours at Griffith Observatory.  2 of those hours were spent watching an introductory film narrated by this gentleman:
Mr. Nimoy narrating a film presented in the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater

and taking in a planetarium show, and then queuing for an unreal view of the moon's surface via the twelve-inch Zeiss refracting telescope.  I enjoyed my time at Griffith Observatory immensely, and I know that I want to come back, if only to catch the other planetarium shows (there are several).  Did I mention that admission to the observatory is free?  Though one has to pay $7 for each planetarium show.

My favorite parts of my Griffith Observatory visit:  Tesla coil demonstration; Foucault's Pendulum; scale model of solar system, including the controversial Pluto (poor Pluto); Zeiss telescope; night-time view of L.A. from observatory roof.  Overall, I had a very educational day.

Some parting images:

Scale model of solar system--can you find Pluto in this photo?
Tesla coil
Zeiss telescope


  1. So I have seen a Foucault's Pendulum - just not the famous one from the book.

  2. So apparently, neither have I. The one in the book is at the Musée des Arts et Métiers (also in Paris). The Panthéon pendulum that I saw is merely the most famous one that Foucault set up, but interestingly, the original bob (lead weight at the end of the pendulum) from the Panthéon pendulum was given to the Musée des Arts et Métiers, and what I saw was a duplicate. Go figure.