Honoring John Glenn…a weekend visit to the Griffith Observatory

My friend, Pam, came to visit this weekend, and after two days of staying close to home—we devoted most of Saturday to watching Whitney Houston’s very moving and all-day memorial—a change in scenery was needed! I had an idea! Jay, Pam and I headed across town to Griffith Park and one of my favorite destinations, the Griffith Observatory.

Perfect timing! It was a good weekend to increase a little knowledge about what to me is always “the mystery” of space. Today marks the 50th anniversary of Astronaut and Senator John Glenn’s historic flight aboard Friendship 7, making him the first American to orbit the Earth.  In 1962 the spacecraft circled Earth three times in a flight lasting a total of 4 hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds. I was just short of ten years old and remember something of the excitement of this event, although I have no memory of hearing anything about control problems requiring Glenn to switch back to the manual fly-by-wire system, piloting the spacecraft in that mode for the remainder of the flight.

“Astronaut fever” was a part of my early years—not so much for me personally, but for the more adventurous! School children were challenged by President Kennedy’s decision to “Go to the Moon” and even children’s television programming supported the imagination through introduction of the futuristic family, The Jetsons. George, Jane, Judy and Elroy (I can still sing the song, can you?) represented the family of the future, complete with every-day space travel, people-movers, and a robot maid, Rosie—just push the button and the work is done. We wondered if one day we’d have our very own personal robot!

So Sunday we made a day of it! Griffith Park is the second-largest city park in California covering 4,310 acres, featuring many inviting activities.  It is home to the Los Angeles Zoo, the famed Greek Theater, the Gene Autry Museum and Travel Town, and dozens of nature and hiking trails.

Weekend experiences in Los Angeles often pose the challenge of crowds! But Griffith Park is HUGE, making it possible to have a comfortable experience with thousands of other friends.

We enjoyed a meandering walk along the Ferndell Trail, located near the western entrance of the park. Home to over 50 fern species, the lush and charming area follows stream beds with hanging plants under the canopy of California sycamores and redwoods. Jay and I never head over to the larger park area without at least taking the thirty minutes to stroll through this verdant picnic area.

I’m a stay-on-the-path pseudo-hiker, but there were plenty of more adventurous trail blazers! Some appeared to be climbing to our eventual destination. We opted for the car!

From a lower vantage point we spied the Observatory. Isn’t this a beautiful building?

Griffith Park was once a part of a Spanish settlement known as Rancho Los Felis. Griffith J. Griffith, a wealthy mining speculator, purchased what remained of the original Rancho in 1882, and it was his dream to one day make science more accessible to the public. Griffith offered the City of Los Angeles $100,000 (1912 money!) for an observatory to be built on top of Mount Hollywood, owned and operated by the City of Los Angeles. Griffith didn’t live to see his dream realized, but today millions of people enjoy a wonderful learning observatory.

The exterior grounds are beautiful offering a spectacular panoramic view of the greater Los Angeles area. Our view was a little obstructed by fog and a heavy marine layer, but on a clear day the view extends all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Many well-known movies have been filmed on the Observatory grounds, including Rebel Without A Cause—thus the memorial statue of James Dean.

The Foucalt Pendulum is the most popular central feature in the beautiful rotunda.  The 240-pound brass ball, suspended by a 40-foot long cable, swings in a constant direction, demonstrating the Earth’s rotation. As time elapses, the trajectory of the pendulum shifts, knocking down pins at different positions, indicating the progress of rotation. It is mesmerizing.

The Central Rotunda also boasts a vaulted ceiling and upper walls of great beauty. Hugo Ballin, muralist, film producer, and author (1879-1956) painted these beautiful murals depicting images of classical celestial mythology in 1934-35. They have recently been completely restored and are a great artistic treasure.

I’ve been coming to the Observatory since I was a child, and brought my own children many times. This trip was also a chance for me to preview the areas I believe Sophia and Karina would most enjoy. Sophia is very inquisitive about the planets, and I’ve had more than one conversation with her about falling space debris and meteors! She heard something on the radio and hasn’t stopped asking questions. I have mixed feelings about showing her this exhibit!

I hope this meteorite, the largest found in California, wouldn’t give her nightmares of falling objects!

The Apollo astronauts trained under the stars in the Griffith Observatory’s Planetarium and the Edge of Space Mezzanine showcases samples of the universe that come to Earth from space or that we acquire through space exploration.  I think both girls would enjoy seeing a real rock brought back from the Moon.

I’m not particularly knowledgeable about the Cosmos, but I have a fascination! I do stare at the night sky and think and ponder and question and wonder…and I want to share that fascination with my granddaughters. Each trip to the Observatory provides just a little more knowledge, but mostly it opens up questions. I look forward to exploring and learning together!

Happy Anniversary to Senator John Glenn. What a brave explorer!