Southern California is a wonderland for the outer space enthusiast. From the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena to a number of impressive observatories, space exploration's influence on SoCal can be found all over — sometimes in unexpected places.
Whether you're a space history buff, enamored by meteorites, an experimental plane-spotter or an art lover with a taste for the cosmos, SoCal has options for you. Let's take a look some of Southern California's major space attractions as well as a few hidden cosmic gems.
Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center
If you want to stand beneath a space shuttle, head to the Exposition Park neighborhood of Los Angeles and visit Endeavour in the Samuel Oschin Pavilion at the California Science Center. Between 1992 and 2011, Endeavour flew on 25 missions for a total of 299 days in space. It arrived at LAX on Sep. 21, 2012. That following October, Endeavour made an epic four-day journey through L.A. to its home.
Along with viewing the shuttle up close, visitors can explore the companion exhibit “Endeavour Together: Parts & People.” The California Science center is currently building a permanent home for Endeavour which will be called the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center which will be 200,000 square feet, will showcase even more aeronautical exhibits and include an entire Shuttle Gallery.
The UCLA Meteorite Collection (Temporarily Closed)
With over 2500 different meteorite samples, the University of California, Los Angeles is home to the largest meteorite collection on the West Coast. While most of the meteorites are used for research purposes, a hundred of the samples are on display to the public, and you can see them yourself by visiting room 3697 in the Geology Building. Many of the samples come from meteorites that were found here in California. The exhibit is free to the public, and docents are on hand to answer questions about cosmochemistry, a.k.a the study of meteorites and how they form.
Columbia Memorial Space Center
The Columbia Memorial Space Center is a hands-on museum home to exhibits and educational programs related to space exploration and STEM enrichment. It also celebrates the City of Downey's long history with space exploration. In fact, the Columbia Memorial Space Museum is built on the location of the former NASA Industrial Plant which served as the manufacturing hub for the Apollo and the Space Shuttle programs. The museum, which opened in 2009, is named to honor the seven astronauts who perished in the Space Shuttle Columbia STS-107 disaster February 1, 2003.
SpaceX HQ's Falcon 9 First-Stage Rocket Booster B1019
While a corporate facility, SpaceX headquarters has something to offer to passersby. Its Hawthorne headquarters boasts a huge Falcon 9 rocket booster right outside the company's doors. And it's not just any old rocket. SpaceX HQ's 159-foot tall rocket stage was flown into space, returned and landed back on Earth on December 21, 2016. Notably, this booster is from the first Falcon 9 rocket that "stuck the landing." You can see the rocket at the intersection of Crenshaw Boulevard and Jack Northrop Avenue.
Orbit Pavilion (Closed)
Located in Celebration Lawn at The Huntington, the massive Orbit Pavilion, product of a collaboration of science and artistry, is an art installation that will transport you into space. The concept was conceived by Dan Goods and David Delgado who are visual strategists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, built by architect Jason Klimoski of New-York-based architecture firm Studio KCA, with audio by composer Shane Myrbeck. The Orbit Pavilion is a large, nautilus-shaped structure that you can walk into. Inside, you'll hear sounds which represent the movements of satellites, as well as the International Space Station. The installation will be on display at The Huntington until September 2019.
Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial
If you're walking through the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles, you'll find the Onizuka Memorial, which honors Japanese American astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka who perished in the Challenger explosion in 1986. After the Challenger tragedy, the City of Los Angeles renamed the street that runs through the Weller Court area of Little Tokyo to Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Street. Situated on Onizuka Street is a stunning monument that includes a scale model of Challenger and plaques dedicated to Onizuka and the six other astronauts who died in the disaster.
Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center (Temporarily Closed to the Public)
Located on Edwards Air Force Base, the Armstrong Flight Research Center is NASA’s aeronautical testing initiatives headquarters. This means that Armstrong facilitates the flights of a variety of experimental aircraft, including some that can go to space — such as the Dream Chaser, pictured above. Armstrong Flight Researcher Center's desert locale is ideal for aeronautical R&D due to its topography and weather. However, because of its location on an Air Force base, it is not open to the general public. The Air Force does run tours of the base including certain parts of the Armstrong Flight Research Center, but reservations fill up well in advance, so book early to secure your place on the tour.
Mojave Air & Space Port
Yes, we have our own spaceport here in Southern California. Located in the Mojave Desert, the Mojave Spaceport was once a rural airport and is now a prime location for research and test flights — including those to space. In 2004, Mojave Air & Space Port became the first private airfield in the U.S. with a commercial spaceflight license from the FAA's Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation. 2004 was also the year that Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipOne famously launched from Mojave. Note that the Mojave Spaceport is only open to the public on "Plane Crazy Saturdays."
The Theme Building
Los Angeles International Airport's iconic flying-saucer-shaped Theme Building, while not directly related to space travel, certainly has that extraterrestrial flair! The Theme Building, whose construction was complete in 1961, was designed by the Pereira & Luckman architectural firm in the 'Googie Style,' an architectural style influenced by futuristic elements. Over the course of its history, the Theme Building has been a restaurant (that even rotated in its earlier days), a must-visit for plane-spotters and a common star of film and photoshoots. It is now home to the Bob Hope USO. There's good news for plane watchers, too, as the Theme Building's observation level is open to the public on certain weekends.
Cosmic Brewery (Closed)
If cosmos and hops are your thing, head to Torrance's Cosmic Brewery and Taproom, a pet and child-friendly venue which bills itself as "L.A.'s only space-themed craft beer taproom." At Cosmic Brewery, extraterrestrial themes influence the art as well as the libations. For example, there is a "Mars or Bust" rye IPA on tap. The space theme is not only for kitsch factor, however. Cosmic Brewery hosts weekly "Friday Night Lights in the Sky" events where staff bring out telescopes for stargazing. And if cosmos, hops and pups are your thing, Cosmic Brewery partners with K911ResQ animal rescue to host dog adoptions on site. Proceeds from each K911ResQ beer sold benefit the animal rescue. Helping dogs while enjoying a cold one? That's out of this world.
These aren't all the space-related attractions that Southern California has to offer, of course. Many more will likely be created as both NASA and commercial spaceflight continue our exploration of the solar system. We are just now at the 50-year mark of the moon landing. Who knows what kinds of must-see space places will exist at the 75thanniversary of Apollo 11!
Note: This article has been updated August 10, 2021. Please check the status of all recommended areas before heading out.