Downey Will Display Shuttle Mock-Up

The Southern California birthplace of the space shuttle is going to spit-shine and welcome visitors to see a piece of nearly forgotten aerospace history

The shuttle mock-up in 1974 inside the original Rockwell plant in Downey, California. NASA (courtesy Aaron T. Harvey @geekfilter)

If anyone in Dayton or Seattle (or with a large backyard and a pipe-dream) got their hopes up about the mock-up shuttle in Downey, California, that needed a home, we have bad news: the city plans to keep it.

As we mentioned in an earlier post, the Downey city council met this week to decide the fate of an aerospace artifact that not many knew even existed. The mock-up orbiter was built by Rockwell/Boeing in 1972 as part of the shuttle contract process, and was used for the next couple of decades as a model “to help validate the size of items and rehearse wire runs for actual orbiter construction,” according to NASA public affairs officer Michael Curie. After the Boeing plant closed in 1999, the mock-up was moved to another building on the property to make room for a film studio, and has been sitting inside that small room ever since, covered in Tyvek sheeting, with its back-end spun around to fit in the space. Now that the property is being developed again, Downey needs to find a new — and with any luck, permanent — home for the shuttle.

On Tuesday, the city council agreed to move the mock-up to a temporary shelter in the parking lot of the Columbia Memorial Space Center, which is also owned by the city. (The new commercial development and the space center are on the same former 160-acre Boeing site, so the shuttle won’t be moving far.) They don’t want to take it apart piece-by-piece, as happened in 2003 when it was carefully examined and moved to its current location. But even in two large pieces it’s too big to fit through the door, so the plan is to remove an entire wall of the room to pull it out. With $100,000 from the developer and an additional $70,000 from the city, the center plans to erect fencing and a large tent for it, and hopes to allow visitors in to see it within the next couple of months, according to the center’s Executive Director, Scott Pomrehn.

The shuttle mock-up in 1974 inside the original Rockwell plant in Downey, California. Photo: NASA (courtesy Aaron T. Harvey @geekfilter)

We wanted to know a little more about the mock-up, so we spoke with some folks in Downey and at NASA to fill in some of this interesting space shuttle-era history.

According to Curie, when the Boeing plant closed, NASA decided to “abandon the shuttle in place,” thereby allowing the city of Downey to “inherit it.” There have, actually, been efforts to loan the mock-up out, and Pomrehn told us he has spoken with museums in San Diego and Colorado. But in the end, it’s considered too cost-prohibitive to move the mostly wooden orbiter any great distance. And to make it more difficult, as noted by the conservator in 2003 and recounted in a recent grant proposal by the space center:

Some deterioration processes are already underway. The outer skin of the shuttle, made of plywood on a wooden frame, is buckling slightly and showing signs of internal delamination. Paper components representing insulation or other lining of the sub-deck are disintegrating. Adhesive mounts and backing for a range of fasteners have become yellowed and embrittled. Delicate plastic components also appear to be degrading slightly. Clear plastic, prismatic ceiling panels have fine crazing cracks, and are starting to become detached at their fasteners.

The Columbia Memorial Space Center was established at the “former manufacturing site of the space shuttles” by Congress in 2004. By the time it was operating in 2009 — it is largely an educational venue for schoolchildren, featuring a Challenger Learning Center — the staff was hard at work trying to find ways to repair and house the shuttle mock-up. That year, they applied for a $700,000 grant from the National Park Service’s Save America’s Treasures program, but it was poor timing: it was the same year the program was de-funded by Congress. In the grant proposal, the center says the total cost of the shuttle’s preservation and restoration is $1,880,000, with about half needed for repair work, and half for a building to house it; the city would have provided the remaining funds.

We talked to Downey councilmember Deacon Mario Guerra over email, who told us the plan now is to keep the mock-up in the tented parking lot for about 18 months, which will give them time to find funding for an addition behind the space center — though he does note that they also remain “open to anything that will do it justice and preserve such a part of our legacy and that of our country.”

Downey councilmember Mario Guerra visiting the mock-up in its current location. The back-end of the shuttle is turned around to fit inside the small room. Photo courtesy Deacon Guerra.

Director Pomrehn has ambitious hopes for funding sources. A few years ago, Tesla Motors, owned by SpaceX’s Elon Musk, considered moving into the old Boeing plant, but those plans fell through. Now, Pomrehn says, Musk “kind of owes us one…he knows of the significance of the site and the possibilities it has.” Pomrehn is “pretty confident” that SpaceX — whose headquarters are just 12 miles down the road in Hawthorne — will step up to fund the space center’s new building, which could house not just the mock-up but maybe a Dragon or two, as well.

And the cost of restoration might not be as high as once thought. Pomrehn has been tracking down the  Rockwell/Boeing workers who built the mock-up in the early ’70s, and many of them are excited at the prospect of coming down to volunteer their services to fix up the shuttle and make it safe for visitors to climb inside. He’s also been talking to people at the California Science Center, 15 miles away in Los Angeles and the future home of Endeavour. Pomrehn would like to see the training for teachers and tour guides and anyone else involved in the celebration that will happen upon Endeavour‘s arrival later this year to happen at his space center. As he says, piggybacking on the excitement of the NASA orbiter’s arrival could boost hopes for the mock-up’s future.

Deacon Guerra is happy there are options for keeping the shuttle in Downey. “We are honored to have this mock-up of the shuttle,” he says. “It is a source of pride for our community and goes along with our amazing history of contribution to flight and space exploration.”

Asked if the city planned to give the mock-up a name, Guerra admitted, “I had never thought about it before, and I think that would be cool for us as a community to name it as we roll it out in the next few months.”

Sounds like residents of Downey will have some work on their hands this summer.


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