More than 1 million people have visited the California Science Center since space shuttle Endeavour made its debut just over four months ago, far surpassing officials' expectations for the Exposition Park museum.
Science Center President Jeffrey Rudolph initially guessed about 2 million people would see the retired orbiter in its first year at the free museum, which averages about 1.6 million visitors per year. Now, he estimates at least 2.5 million people will pass through its turnstiles — a record.
"I never dreamed that it would be this important to L.A.," said Lynda Oschin, chairwoman of the Mr. and Mrs. Samuel and Lynda Oschin Family Foundation, which made what was described as an "extraordinary" financial contribution to bring the shuttle to the museum.
"To see all the people come out, all the children … it's mind-boggling to me, the whole thing," Oschin said. "It's still unbelievable to me."
Museum officials had long dreamed of displaying a shuttle: Aerospace science curator Ken Phillips first pitched the idea two decades ago. NASA divvied up the shuttles in April 2011 after a fierce national competition, and the Science Center was the only institution west of the Mississippi to receive one.
Endeavour arrived in Los Angeles in September 2012 after a celebratory flight piggybacking on a modified 747 over the southern United States and major California landmarks. In October, it crawled along city streets from Los Angeles International Airport to the California Science Center, a delicate three-day operation that drew hundreds of thousands of spectators.
Two other museums that house orbiters — the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City and the Smithsonian Institution's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia — both reported increased attendance after their displays opened. The final shuttle, Atlantis, will be showcased at a facility scheduled to open this summer at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.
For now, Endeavour is in a temporary display pavilion. But museum officials are busy drawing up plans for the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center, a wing expected to open in about five years.
There, the 122-foot-long shuttle will be displayed vertically as though ready for launch, complete with an external tank and twin solid rocket boosters. Endeavour will be the only shuttle shown in an upright position.
On Monday, the museum unveiled another shuttle-themed exhibit: "Mission 26: The Big Endeavour," which documents the orbiter's journey to Los Angeles. Glossy photographs — including some from L.A. Times photographers — lined the walls, leading to a bulletin board covered in brightly colored sheets of paper where visitors wrote about their experiences with the shuttle.
Also on display were projects from Amy Davis' fifth-grade class at Century Park Elementary School in Inglewood. When Davis' students watched the shuttle fly over the school last year, one was so moved he began to cry. Davis wrote the Science Center, which asked her class to help put together the new exhibit.
Davis teared up as she watched her students crowd around their display case.
"To see their work and everything here — it just validates who they are as scholars," she said. "I tell them every day how brilliant they are, how beautiful they are, how much they can go out and change the world. And this proves it to them."
Tori Morris, 10, and her classmates wandered around the exhibit, pointing at photos and searching for their school on a floor-to-ceiling map outlining the shuttle's route through the city.
"This is, like, very amazing to see our projects in a museum because not a lot of schools have this opportunity," Tori said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance."
School groups were just some of visitors who streamed into the display pavilion Monday. In awe, guests stopped almost immediately after entering, snapping photos of Endeavour.
"It's just a piece of history," said Sharon Carbonneau, who saw the shuttle as part of her family's vacation from Albuquerque. "We may never get a chance to see it actually launch, but we figured we could come and see a piece of history."