Making science fun
Jeff Rudolph leads the California Science Center to space and beyond
It was 20 years ago that Jeff Rudolph, president of the California Science Center, sat down with head Air and Space curator Ken Phillips and sketched out the idea to acquire one of NASA’s famed space shuttles someday.
The shuttle program had barely just begun, but they put it down as a possibility. They even made a drawing of it standing upright as if ready to launch.
“I remember saying, you know they are going to retire the fleet at some point,” Phillips said. “You just don’t know when.”
The two had started thinking about what types of aircraft they would want to display, going forward, that represented milestones in flight, including space flight. They already had artifacts from the Apollo program, much of which was built by engineers in the Southland, so they understood the significance to the area.
At the time, a space shuttle exhibit seemed like such a long shot, just sort of tacked onto a long-term vision for the museum, known in those days as the California Museum of Science and Industry.
“It wasn’t one of the great science centers in the world,” said Rudolph, who lives in Rancho Palos Verdes. “We felt that in California we should have one of the best.”
Fast forward to last month when the space shuttle Endeavour made its spectacular tour of the Southland piggybacked atop a modified-747 and escorted by two fighter jets. Not only had the Science Center brought excitement back to its institution, it also brings with it some magic back to L.A.
Phillips, whose job it is to know when important aircraft are going to be released across the country, said they could not have done it without Rudolph’s leadership.
“I get the impression he really likes a lot of the donors he works with,” Phillips said. “He enjoys sharing the excitement about education and the creative experiences that we try and present here. He really sees the science center’s mission as inspiration.”
Now that Endeavour has reached the Science Center, it’s expected to become one of the biggest tourist attractions ever to come to the City of Los Angeles. It also marks a culminating moment for a science museum that’s gone through a dramatic turnaround over the past 25 years.
Leading those changes and the quest to bring the space shuttle to Los Angeles has been Rudolph all along.
“Of course we keep learning and keep getting better, but we’re basically right on track with what we set out to do, so it’s incredibly rewarding,” said Rudolph from a quiet conference room away from the herds of children that typically flock daily to the Science Center located next to the Coliseum.
It was clear from the day the shuttle landed, that it brings a certain level of excitement. Crowds gathered along Imperial Highway in El Segundo starting early in the morning. Kim Calimlim said she wasn’t planning on coming to the airport, but her husband’s excitement brought them to a grassy hill off Imperial Highway at 9:30 in the morning.
“It’s a once in a lifetime thing,” Calimlim said. “I’m so glad I came. It’s actually been very exciting.”
Jeanie Pelzman, a 78-year-old El Segundo resident who lives near the runway, said it felt good to be a part of history. She recalled the Challenger explosion and how vividly she can remember it.
“Every time the shuttle went up I would get a knot in my stomach,” Pelzman said. “To see it coming home for the last time and coming home to LA is a very special thing.”
The shuttle remained at an airplane hangar at LAX for almost a month before it made a slow crawl along city streets toward the Science Center. The journey required the removal of roughly 400 trees, which the museum plans to accommodate by replanting four times that many. Roughly 200 light fixtures and electrical lines were also temporarily moved to make enough room for Endeavor’s 54-foot tale wing.
Those who charted the route checked and re-checked the course so many times they could practically imagine it in their sleep. In some parts the shuttle had less than a foot of clearance on each side. Rudolph said he often drove the route to work from his home in RPV.
Endeavour will remain in a temporary exhibit for about three years as builders construct a new Air and Space Museum where it will eventually stand upright in a permanent display as if ready to launch, just as Rudolph and Phillips envisioned more than two decades ago.
Those close to Rudolph say without his leadership, the museum would not have been so bold as to propose buying a space shuttle. The California Science Center beat out nearly 30 institutions in a bid to win over the hearts of NASA. Passed up was Houston, where newspapers groaned of the Southland’s achievement.
Rudolph said it was in part due to the area’s diversity and the dramatic impact the shuttle can have on science education that it earned the rights to buy a shuttle. Attendance at the museum is expected to increase from 1.6 million to 2 million visitors annually as a result.
School kids like those from Soleado Elementary School in RPV plan to experience the shuttle up close this year, said Principal Kevin Allen. Soleado is participating in a NASA program where students build their own Ham radio and communicate with astronauts on the International Space Station. Seeing the space shuttle up close should add another dimension of understanding, Allen said.
“It’s pretty exciting stuff,” he added.
Rudolph came 30 years ago to the Science Center – which is part non-profit, part state agency – when the president at the time had a sudden heart attack and died. Rudolph had been working for the governor’s office on state budget issues and was asked to fill in for a while at the museum in South Central Los Angeles.
Five years later he was named permanent director at a time when the museum, known as the California Museum of Science and Industry, was struggling and largely needed to be remodeled. Nearly three decades and half a billion dollars in improvements later and Rudolph can look back on a mission almost accomplished.
“We wanted to look broadly into the future and plan for it,” Rudolph said. “I never thought it was going to be a 25-year plan. You never think you’re going to see it through.”
The last hurdle remains a substantial fundraising goal. The museum launched a $200 million fundraising campaign after learning it had acquired the shuttle last year. At the time, they hadn’t even secured the $28 million NASA said it required in six weeks to buy the space shuttle. Leaders at NASA ended up dropping the price tag down to $14 million, which the Center raised in about six months.
“Jeff has a lot of courage,” said Shell Amega, communications director. “Jeff has no fear when we’re all quaking in our boots.”
Amega said Rudolph too showed courage in accepting the first North American Body World exhibit, which was controversial for its exhibit of human cadavers.
“A lot of museums wouldn’t go near that exhibit,” Amega said. “But after we took it a lot of people wanted it.”
When he’s not behind the desk Rudolph sometimes leads talks at the indoor sea aquarium. Only he does it from within the tank from a microphone embedded in a diving mask. Scuba diving, it turns out, is one of Rudolph’s passions so it’s no wonder he jumps at an opportunity to get wet even if it is just within a big fish tank.
It also shows that even the boss is a big kid at heart, marveling like all the rest at the feats of nature and mankind. It’s that connection to the world that’s at the core of the Science Center’s mission, Rudolph said.
“The Science Center has a really vital role in the science learning process,” Rudolph said. “Without that inspiration, without the connections where kids say, ‘hey, that’s really fun, and I can understand it and it’s relevant to my life,’ they aren’t going to go to school or read books or go on the Internet to learn more about it. That’s the role we play.” PEN