LOS ANGELES – When the space shuttle Endeavour weaves through working-class communities on its way to its retirement home, Hildreth “Hal” Walker Jr. wants the children he tutors to remember a few names: Ronald McNair. Mae Jemison. Charles Bolden.
A retired laser scientist who had a role in the Apollo 11 mission, Walker took the opportunity with the upcoming two-day terrestrial crawl through predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles County to highlight the role that minorities played in the shuttle program.
“We really have a job to do to show them the accomplishments of the people whose shoulders they’re standing on,” Walker said.
Soon after Endeavour’s aerial tour around California landmarks, Walker, who runs an after-school tutoring center in the suburb of Inglewood, gave a lecture at the public library where he ticked off the prominent figures in the program.
McNair was the second African-American in space and died in the Challenger tragedy. Jemison rode aboard Endeavour as the first African-American female astronaut. Bolden is the current NASA chief and the first black to hold the position.
Endeavour remained parked at the Los Angeles International Airport since Sept. 21 after crowd-pleasing swoops over the state Capitol, Golden State Bridge, Hollywood sign and other landmarks.
Beginning today, the shuttle heads off on its last mission – a 12-mile creep through city streets. It will move past an eclectic mix of strip malls, mom-and-pop shops, tidy lawns and faded apartment buildings.
Its final destination: California Science Center in South Los Angeles where it will be put on display.
Seizing on a teaching moment, some schools along the route have folded the historic move into their lessons, hoping to stimulate interest in science, technology, engineering and math – fields where blacks and Latinos have been underrepresented.
At the Wish Charter Elementary School near LAX, kindergarteners to sixth graders spent the days leading up to Endeavour’s terrestrial journey learning about the shuttle’s different components – nose cone, heat tiles, fuselage.
On Friday, students planned to walk across the street to a parking lot where Endeavour will temporarily rest after leaving LAX.
Armed with American flags and index cards depicting the shuttle, students planned a “scavenger hunt” – identifying the various shuttle parts and marking them off on their cards.
“It’s thrilling to have this pop up right here in our neighborhood,” said principal Shawna Draxton.
Because of Endeavour’s enormous wingspan, rolling street and sidewalk closures will be in effect as crews dismantle power lines and traffic lights. Some 400 trees were cleared to make space and streets were fortified with steel plates to accommodate the 170,000-pound load.
Despite the high security and limited viewing, Saturday’s public celebrations at the Forum — where the Los Angeles Lakers once played – and a performance led by actress-dancer Debbie Allen near the end of the route were choreographed with the young generation in mind.
The Inglewood High School band will lead a procession to the Forum and students at Crenshaw High School will preside at Allen’s show.
Crenshaw High used to have an academic track for students interested in science and math careers and there have been recent talks to bring it back. Principal L. Remon Corley, who took over the helm two months ago, hopes the shuttle experience will ignite the necessary spark.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to see the power of science and math in action. It’s an experience they won’t forget,” he said.
Anthony Maddox, a professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in STEM education, noted the shuttle travels down some of the same streets as the annual Martin Luther King Jr. parade in South Los Angeles.
“Given the diversity of the shuttle crews over the years, the coincidence seems so appropriate,” he said.
Walker, the laser scientist, has taken busloads of youngsters over the years to view shuttle launches at Cape Canaveral, Fla., and experimental aircraft flights from NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in the Mojave Desert.
Walker is best known for shining a laser beam from the Lick Observatory at a reflector mirror that moonwalkers Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set up during the Apollo 11 mission — an experiment that proved man had been on the moon.
These days, Walker tries to instill his passion to kids who gather at his tutoring center, located in the lobby of a converted bank building. Study carrels are next to an old walk-in safe.
Days before Endeavour’s move, Walker waved around an inflatable model of a shuttle while students peppered him with questions. During a discussion about heat tiles, Walker instructed them to rub their hands together to generate friction. The shuttle tiles, he said, can withstand the heat the vehicle faces as it streaks through the atmosphere.
Afterward, Walker said he was pleased with the curiosity he saw. “They’re observing and trying to figure out how things work,” he said. “They’ll need those skills for a career in science or engineering, or for whatever they do.”
Michael Pineda, 13, said he had plans to be a lawyer, but is now leaning toward a career in aerospace after seeing Endeavour fly over. He could not miss a chance to see the shuttle pass by.
“Definitely, I’m there. They always say all this stuff about Inglewood, and now I think of my hometown and, wow, it’s finally going to be on the charts,” he said.