Like many people, I’ve got a list of the places I want to go and the things I want to do before I die. It’s easy to let that list sit somewhere, waiting for some unknown point in the future when you have enough time and/or money to start ploughing through it. But this year, I decided I could afford to tick at least a few items off it.
I really wanted to go back to the United States for a proper holiday, and I picked out California as the place to go, as there was plenty there that I hadn’t gotten a chance to see on my last visit in 2012. For instance, one thing I’d like to eventually achieve is seeing every Apollo command module, and California has two of them, plus the Space Shuttle Endeavour. I also signed up for some whale watching in Monterey, hoping that I would be able to see some wild killer whales, which are most likely to appear in April and May, or something equally interesting.
Travelling alone would give me the freedom I wanted, but it also meant a lot of hard work organising my itinerary beforehand, plus my usual travel anxiety niggled at me; while I’ve set out to other countries alone plenty of times, I’ve usually joined up with a group upon arrival – I haven’t gone on many holidays where I was completely solo. Still, at least I was going to a country where they spoke my language.
Day 1 – 7th May
I flew Virgin Atlantic from Manchester to Las Vegas, the same airline that I flew on for my very first trip to the States back in 2007. I watched four films in a row on the in-flight entertainment: Aquaman (very entertaining), Bumblebee (had much more heart than the other Transformers films), Mary Queen of Scots (boring and didn’t seem to know what theme it was going for) and Robin Hood (fairly fun, better than I expected, though not sure what era it was going for). The only downsides were that I had to have my second choice on the menu because they’d run out of chicken with mushroom sauce – even though I was towards the front of Economy class – and the landing in Vegas was pretty rough.
While getting through immigration didn’t take long, I did get a little confused going between the two terminals of McCarran International Airport to reach my domestic flight; I took a shuttle from outside, only to find I needed a tram to reach my gate, a tram that I could probably have used in the first place.
The flight from Las Vegas to Los Angeles was a smooth one, and upon arrival, I hopped on the Flyaway bus to Union Station. It was a long ride: Los Angeles stretches over a huge area, and the traffic is notoriously nightmarish. When I got to the station, I then used the Metro subway to reach my hotel in Hollywood, though I needed to figure out the system; you have to buy a Tap card and load all of your Metro fares onto it. (This could be used for both the subway and Metro buses, though as I found out, not all buses in Los Angeles are Metro.) After a very long day, I finally got to my hotel, collapsed on the bed, and all was well.
Day 2 – 8th May
First stop was the California Science Center, again using the Metro. While there, I couldn’t help but notice that I was the only person wearing shorts. It was about 16 degrees Celsius, which I suppose is cold by California standards.
The California Science Center is free to enter, though it costs three dollars to make an online reservation to enter the Space Shuttle Endeavour’s pavilion. I had a look outside first – going past a very long queue of school groups – where a Lockheed A-12 was on display. I’ve never seen an actual SR-71 Blackbird, one of my favourite aircraft, but the A-12 is a close thing. It was a secret reconnaissance aircraft used from 1962 to 1968 before being replaced by the SR-71; in fact, because it only carried one person, the A-12 slightly outperformed the SR-71, with an operating speed of Mach 3.2 and a cruising altitude of 90,000 feet. The A-12 on display at the Science Center was a training aircraft, and has two seats, unlike the operational version.
Inside the Science Center, three spacecraft are on display together close to the entrance escalator. Mercury-Redstone 2 was launched in January 1961 as a precursor to the first manned American spaceflight three months later; it flew up to an altitude of 157 miles and straight back down again, landing in the ocean 16 minutes and 39 seconds after liftoff. The capsule carried a three-year-old chimpanzee named Ham, who was none the worse for wear for his experience, and lived for twenty-two years afterwards.
Gemini 11, the second-to-last mission of Project Gemini, was launched in September 1966, carrying astronauts Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon. Among the flight’s notable feats was that Conrad and Gordon performed a rendezvous and docking with their Agena target vehicle on their first orbit, then used the Agena’s engine to reach an altitude of 853 miles – the highest that any manned spacecraft has gone without leaving Earth orbit altogether. (The International Space Station, by comparison, orbits at around 250 miles altitude.)
The command module from the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project was the last Apollo spacecraft ever to fly, in July 1975. ASTP was a cooperative mission between the US and the Soviet Union, marking the end of the Space Race between the two nations. The Apollo, crewed by Thomas Stafford, Vance Brand and Deke Slayton, used a docking module to dock with a Soyuz spacecraft in orbit. Following this mission, no American astronaut would go into space until the Space Shuttle made its first flight in 1981.
I was interested in the various models of unmanned spacecraft on display, but most of the other exhibits at the Science Center seemed to be aimed at a younger audience, so I went down to the Space Shuttle Endeavour exhibit. The first part featured various pieces from the Shuttle, and a movie showing Endeavour’s three-day journey from LAX to the Science Center, through the narrow streets of the city. Then I headed into the pavilion, to see my first Space Shuttle Orbiter. I was taken aback by the size of it, and fascinated by the details. Seeing an Orbiter up close, being able to examine the individual tiles and the texture, is really amazing.
Endeavour is the youngest of the three surviving Orbiters that went into space. It was built as a replacement for Challenger, which was destroyed at launch in 1986. Its name is spelled in the British manner rather than the American ‘endeavor’, as it is named after the ship that Captain James Cook sailed to the Pacific in the 18th century. Between 1992 and 2011, Endeavour flew 25 missions and spent 296 days in space. Among its most notable flights were the first servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993, and delivering the first American module of the International Space Station in 1998. Since all of the Orbiters were constructed in Palmdale, California, being put on display in Los Angeles was something of a homecoming for Endeavour.
Around the edge of the pavilion was a timeline of all 135 Space Shuttle missions, with a panel for each individual missions; the two missions with crew losses, STS-51-L (Challenger) and STS-107 (Columbia), were greyed out. There was naturally plenty of displays giving information about how the Shuttle worked, including one mentioning that Endeavour’s supports are slightly mobile, to reduce damage if there’s an earthquake.
Outside the pavilion was ET-94, the last flight-qualified Space Shuttle external fuel tank to survive – it made its way to California from its manufacturing facility in New Orleans. It was so big that I couldn’t fit it all into a single photo.
Just a short walk from the California Science Center was my next stop, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. My main interest was the dinosaur skeletons, of which there were a wide variety. Among these were three Tyrannosaurus rex of different ages – a two-year-old baby, a fourteen-year-old juvenile, and a seventeen-year-old subadult – displaying T-rex‘s different growth speeds throughout its life, and how differently proportioned individuals of varying ages were.
Other displays included taxidermied American mammals in dioramas (impressive but also a little morbid), the skeletons of prehistoric mammals, information on the wildlife around Los Angeles itself, and upstairs, the ‘dino lab’, where you could see palaeontologists painstakingly cleaning and preparing real dinosaur bones. I had thought of going to the La Brea Tar Pits in the afternoon, but I was having so much fun at the museum that I stayed longer than I’d planned and went straight back to my hotel afterwards. One of the many things I learned from this holiday was that the quality of what you see is more important than quantity.
I was subsequently rested in time for the evening’s activity – something I’d wanted to do in America for a while: watch a baseball game. The Los Angeles Dodgers were playing the Atlanta Braves at home that night, and their stadium was a simple bus ride away from the hotel.
At Dodger Stadium, I bought a lapel pin and a traditional Dodger Dog, and settled into my seat. I was quickly caught up in the wonderful atmosphere, complete with organ music. Since it was Mexican Heritage Night, the pre-game entertainment included Spanish dancers and a mariachi band, who also played the national anthem. There were some baseball trivia questions, which of course I could only guess at: the only name I even recognised was Mike Scoscia, for his appearance in the Simpsons episode “Homer at the Bat”.
My knowledge of baseball comes primarily from Wii Sports, but when the game began, I was able to pick up the rules pretty quickly. My row was mostly empty at the start, so wanting some company, I sat next to the guy at the end: his name was Jim, and he was nice enough to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge. He would point out things like “This guy is great for hitting home runs” and that it was surprisingly early for the Braves to switch out their pitcher in the fifth inning. (The Dodgers only changed theirs in the seventh, which is more typical.) I eventually had to move back to my ticketed seat as more spectators turned up about halfway through the game, which I suppose they do because it goes on so long.
I found myself really enjoying the play itself – there were a few home runs to get excited for – but there was also much more to see on the screens than at an English football match. Each time a batter stepped up, statistics for both him and the pitcher were displayed. In the two-minute gaps between innings, there were various distractions such as Kiss Cam (the camera focussed on couples who then had to kiss – anyone who didn’t was booed), and games involving the players and the audience. There was a Military Hero of the Game, a WW2 veteran celebrating his 99th birthday. And several Mexican waves made their way around the stadium. To cap it all off, the Dodgers won 9-4. This was definitely an experience to be repeated when I next visit the United States.