June 25, 2012
— Before Columbia launched on the first space shuttle mission over 30 years ago, before Star Trek fans campaigned to rename the prototype shuttle after the Starship Enterprise and even before the last of the Apollo astronauts left their bootprints on the moon, there was a full-size space shuttle in Downey, California.
That mockup, largely overlooked until recently, still exists and is about to go on public display near where it was first built in 1972.
The mostly wood and plastic model was created by North American Rockwell (now Boeing) as part of the company's bid to build the space shuttle for NASA. After winning the contract, the company kept the 122 foot long by 35 foot tall (37 by 11 meter) mockup at their Downey assembly facility where it served as a fit check tool for instruments and payloads being built for the real orbiters.
The one-wing model — its left wing and part of its vertical stabilizer, or tail, was removed after its debut — remained in Rockwell's design and engineering room for more than 30 years, practically the same amount of time as the real shuttles flew. The mockup doubled as a public relations and visual aid during congressional and astronaut visits.
It was only after the Downey plant was closed in 1999, did it become necessary to move the shuttle into storage. The assembly facility was being converted into a movie studio and the mockup was in the way.
Rockwell's space shuttle mockup as it appears today in storage, partially disassembled. (Bill Novak/The Original Rocket Dungeon)
In the decade that the shuttle sat off to the side, partially disassembled and under sheets, the fleet it helped give birth to flew out their final missions and NASA's shuttle program came to its end. Museums jockeyed to display the retired winged orbiters, and all of the supporting shuttle simulators and replicas as well.
But it wasn't a museum's interest that drove the original space shuttle mockup into the open — that credit goes to a shopping center.
Mockup making way for mall
When Industrial Realty Group (IRG) acquired the 77 acres that comprised the former Downey aerospace design and manufacturing complex, its contract required that it keep the space shuttle mockup on site. But with the Tierra Luna Marketplace, a new $500 million retail development, set to go forward, IRG offered to pay the city to move the shuttle elsewhere.
North American Rockwell's (now Boeing's) original space shuttle mockup as it looked after its debut in 1972. (Boeing/Aaron Harvey)
The Downey city council voted to accept the developer's offer earlier this month, setting in motion a plan to relocate the mockup. Fortunately, a nearby location presented an appropriate, if perhaps temporary, area to place the shuttle model on public display.
By mid-July, the city plans to raise a tent large enough to shelter the shuttle outside the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey. The city-owned, hands-on educational facility, which opened in 2010 on the same historic site where moon-bound capsules and the shuttle orbiters were built, hosts space-themed exhibits — including two test Apollo spacecraft — and a Challenger Learning Center.
The mockup's move will cost the city $57,000 more than IRG's $100,000 payment — a wall will need to be removed just to extract it out of its current building — but is worth the investment, Downey's mayor Roger Brossmer told the Long Beach Press-Telegram.
"This is the original shuttle, and we think it's a national treasure," Mayor Brossmer said. "We would like to see people be able to get in it, touch it. See what it's like. We are very excited."
The city hopes to have the mockup's new outdoor display open to the public within three months, but that is only a short-term plan.
Over the next two years, the Columbia Memorial Space Center hopes to raise the estimated $2 million needed to build a permanent home, as well the additional $1 million or so to repair and restore the mockup, which is showing the signs of age.
The space shuttle mockup as it appeared in 2003, before being moved into storage. (Griswold Conservation Associates)
A condition report prepared when the shuttle mockup was first moved found that the model was degrading in place.
Griswold Conservation Associates wrote in 2003 that "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."
Brossmer told the Press-Telegram that they hope to find and recruit some of workers who built the mockup in 1972 to help refurbish it to its original form.
"This will be a way for people to come in and see what was actually built at this location. This is where [the space shuttle] was built. It was where the engineers worked," the mayor told the newspaper. "This is very hallowed ground, and we're going to take advantage of that."
Visit shuttles.collectspace.com for continuing coverage of the delivery and display of NASA's retired space shuttles.