There’s One More Shuttle That Needs a Home

The forgotten shuttle model that supported North American Rockwell’s bid to construct the Space Shuttle fleet

The original full-scale mockup of the space shuttle in 1974.

Inside a warehouse in Downey, California, a one-winged space shuttle sits underneath a blanket of Tyvek sheeting. It’s not a real space shuttle. Well, it sort of is? Let’s just say it played a real role in shuttle history.

While space museums around the country were competing fiercely to be the next home for Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour, and Enterprise, and even a couple months ago, when Houston was finally rewarded with the mock-up Explorer shuttle that used to greet space fans at Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Center, this unnamed shuttle in Southern California went largely unknown and un-fought for.

It’s a full-scale mock-up that was built in 1972 by Rockwell International (now Boeing) as part of the original space shuttle Request for Proposals process. When NASA awarded Rockwell the contract, the mock-up was kept on site and became the hands-on model for much of the shuttle’s design. Each time a new instrument was built, it was placed into the mostly plastic and wood panels to make sure it would fit properly with the existing structure. Model payloads were fitted in the cargo bay; it even has an aluminum (and non-functioning) Canadarm. The mock-up only has one wing because, of course, two would be redundant for a bird that wasn’t flying anywhere. Over the decades, this artifact lived the history of the space shuttle’s evolution.

The building where the shuttle sits now has an even longer aerospace history. The original hangars in Downey, just outside of Los Angeles, were where North American Aviation developed the P-51 Mustang and the XB-70 supersonic bomber. Later, when the company became North American Rockwell, they built the Apollo command module there. Boeing took over the facility during the shuttle years, and held the aerospace factory until 1999, when the Downey plant was closed. The next year, the city purchased the shuttle mock-up from NASA, and eventually sold the buildings and airfields to the Industrial Realty Group, which leased it to a film studio (which then built a six million-gallon fake lake on the property). IRG agreed to keep housing the shuttle, but it would have to be moved out of the way of the cameras.

The city of Downey enlisted a conservation company to undertake the relocation project. The mock-up was carefully disassembled, during which time it was discovered that it wasn’t just used for instrumentation upgrades during the shuttle fleet’s lifetime, but was also used to work out changes in the original design. From a report by Griswold Conservation Associates:

Evidence of previous configurations of the mock-up was revealed upon separation of the wing from the fuselage. Black and white paint configurations and other markings made with adhered striping tape suggested an earlier configuration, seen in an early photograph. Further research showed that the meeting point of the OMS system housings flanking the vertical stabilizer with the back end of the cargo bay door reflected an earlier version, later changed by NASA.

Fast forward another decade, and the property is changing hands yet again. The studio has closed, and because IRG plans to build commercial developments on the property, they’re insisting that the city finally take possession of the shuttle. The Downey City Council will meet tonight to finalize those plans, (according to a local paper, The Downey Beat), which includes relocating the shuttle to a storage facility at a nearby parking lot — also owned by IRG, which will lease the space for $1. Between $100,000 from IRG and a federal community development grant, the city wouldn’t have to cough up much to house the shuttle, at least in the first year.  The Beat reports that IRG will lease the new site to the city for two years, and then the piece of aerospace history is going to need yet another home.

Where will it go then? The city of Downey could build a permanent structure for the shuttle and, since the mock-up isn’t a precious white-glove-only artifact like the three space-traveling orbiters, it could allow visitors to crawl around inside — which might make it worth visiting over its soon-to-be-neighbor Endeavour. Or they could probably make a bundle by offering it up to cities like Dayton, which desperately wanted an orbiter, but lost out in the competition.

What say you, Downey? What’s to become of this piece of American space history?

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