The Columbia Memorial Space Center is a hands-on learning center that is dedicated to bringing the wonder and excitement of space science to children of all ages. We also serve as the national memorial for the Space Shuttle Columbia’s seven crew members, lost in 2003. Located in Downey, California, we strive to be the most accessible space science center in the Los Angeles area. Our 20,000 square foot visitor center is equipped with not only amazing technology and visual teaching exhibits, but also a friendly staff and atmosphere to help make them more enjoyable.
The Space Center also hosts one of over 48 Challenger Learning Centers on the planet, and the only CLC in the greater Los Angeles area. When operating, you can “Return to the Moon”, “Rendezvous With a Comet”, or go on a “Voyage to Mars,” and experience the real-life excitement of working in Mission Control or in the Spacecraft.
The Space Shuttle Columbia and seven crew members were lost on February 1, 2003 when it disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere.
During their launch on January 16, 2003 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a piece of foam insulation broke off from the shuttle's external tank and struck the left wing.
When the shuttle re-entered Earth's atmosphere after a 16-day mission, the damage allowed heat to penetrate and destroy the internal wing structure, causing the spacecraft to become unstable and slowly break apart.
The Columbia Memorial Space Center takes pride in being the national memorial to the Columbia Space Shuttle, where students of all ages are invited to learn about the the crew, their 16-day mission, and their extensive careers with NASA. It is our belief that we can help to inspire students to learn more about the STEM fields and apply that knowledge to their own interests, just as the Columbia Crew so bravely did.
Downey's Aerospace History
The City of Downey has been the site of aviation ingenuity since 1929, when a section of ranch land was converted into an airport and aircraft manufacturing facility. For the next seventy years the site and facilities continued to be developed, expanded and utilized for aircraft manufacture, missile design and development, and ultimately, the design and production of Apollo command and service modules during the lunar program and development and production of the Space Shuttle Orbiters.
Downey’s entry into the then young aviation industry came in 1929 when E.M. Smith, a wealthy industrialist, organized the EMSCO Aircraft Corporation at the Downey site to manufacture a complete line of land and water aircraft.
On purchased farm land (at that time largely supporting orange groves and crops of castor beans) EMSCO built a modern 60,000 square foot manufacturing facility with an adjoining private airport.
However, with business growth retarded significantly by the economic conditions of the Depression, in 1931 EMSCO leased the Downey plant to Champion Aircraft Corporation of America. Unfortunately economic conditions being no kinder to Champion, within seven months they packed up and left the site, as well.
In 1933, Walter Kinner, who had designed and manufactured two airplanes for Amelia Earhart, brought his Security National Aircraft Corporation to Downey. Kinner’s ambition was to develop a small, reasonably priced plane that could be mass marketed. His patented design was the “folding wing,” an aircraft with side-by-side seating and wings that folded up so that the plane could fit into a large garage. However only three of the original folding-wing aircraft were ever built, and their manufacture at the Downey plant ceased within the year.
The next aircraft manufacturing pioneer to come to Downey was considerably more successful than his predecessors. Jerry Vultee moved his young Aviation Manufacturing Corporation to Downey from its hangar-plant in Glendale in 1936.
Having previously built commercial airliners, Vultee shifted his focus to military applications, developing the V-11 attack bomber. While the American Army Air Corps was apparently uninterested in the aircraft, many were sold to the Chinese, Turkish, Brazilian and Soviet Union governments.
Ultimately, the U.S. government did purchase some V-11s as well as many more of later Vultee models; by 1941 Vultee(Aviation Manufacturing Corp. became Vultee Aircraft, Inc. after the untimely 1938 death of Jerry Vultee in an airplane crash) produced 15 percent of all the military aircraft in the nation. Three new models in addition to the attack bomber were being produced by 1940: the Vultee Valiant Basic Trainer; the Valiant 51, a basic combat aircraft; and the Vanguard pursuit-interceptor.
Vultee Aircraft was an innovator in the area of manufacturing as well as aviation design. Having significantly expanded and revamped the Downey manufacturing facility to meet the new demand for its aircraft, Vultee now boasted that it had “more automatic machinery per square foot than any other aircraft factory.” Vultee’s particular masterpiece (in their own words) was what the executives exultantly described as “the first and only truly powered assembly line in the industry.”
In 1942 Vultee bought operating control of the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation of San Diego and became Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation (Convair). Convair at Vultee Field in Downey produced hundreds of Vultee Basic Trainers, parts for military war aircraft produced by other companies, and the B-24 “Liberator” heavy bomber.
At the end of World War II in 1945, as the production of military aircraft wound down, the Vultee Division of Convair remained open to support missile systems development for the government. Convair had contracts for the short-range LARK surface-to-air missile, and to study long-range missile weapons systems. The latter, dubbed MX-774 was designed to study two types of missiles: a subsonic, jet-engine cruise missile and a rocket-powered supersonic ballistic missile. The contract was cancelled for economic reasons in 1946.
As Convair’s military contracts evaporated at the end of the war, North American Aviation, headquartered in nearby Inglewood shifted its focus to jet aircraft, and in need of more manufacturing capacity, began to lease Convair’s assembly plant. North American produced the AJ-1 Navy bomber, a post-war T-28 trainer, and the AT-6 wartime trainer in Downey, as well as conducting research and development on a number of other projects for the government.
Among the most significant of these R & D projects was the Navaho missile program, designed to produce a surface-to-surface guided missile capable of carrying an atomic warhead 5,500 nautical miles at a speed of at least Mach 2.75. Although the program was ultimately cancelled in the late 1950s, the technical discoveries that came out of the program were abundant in the areas of rocket guidance and propulsion, and these technologies were transferred into the new generation of weapons (ballistic missiles).
In 1958, North American’s Downey Missile Division took on the contract to produce the Hound Dog Air-to-Ground Missile, designed to be launched from the B-52 bomber in order to destroy heavily defended enemy targets. The missile continued to be produced at the Downey plant through the early 1960s. Also in 1958, North American won the contract to produce the Little Joe Launch Vehicle to test the Mercury program.
In 1961, in an attempt to rally enthusiasm for space exploration as a national priority, President John F. Kennedy issued a proclamation calling for a new effort aimed at “placing a man on the moon and returning him before the decade is out.”
To accomplish this goal, NASA put out a two bids for space program contracts. The first was for the Saturn S-11, the second stage of the Saturn V Launch Vehicle designed to send multi-ton payloads into space. The second was for the Project Apollo Spacecraft Development Program, comprising the command module and service module. North American won both awards, and in so doing, made Downey the industrial center for America’s lunar space program.
To support the Apollo program, NASA established the Resident Apollo Spacecraft Office (RASPO) at the Downey plant. During the peak of the Apollo program, the number of resident government and support contract personnel (including astronauts) was over 300.
Employment at the Downey site grew rapidly, as well. At its peak in the mid 1960s, the NASA Industrial Plant, Downey (as it was officially renamed in 1964) supported more than 35,000 workers.
Along with the growth of the work force came an addition of millions of square feet of offices, factories, work spaces and test facilities. Facilities at the Downey plant included the largest clean room in the world, a Mission Control Room identical to the one in Houston, the Apollo Impact Test Facility (the land and pool drop tower area used to test the integrity of the Apollo capsule), and a Rotational Test Facility (also known as the “vomit comet”).
In 1967 North American merged with Rockwell Standard Corporation, to become North American Rockwell Corporation.
In their contributions to the design, production, and testing of the Apollo command service modules, the men and women who worked at the Downey NASA plant were part of one of the most successful programs of the U.S. space program. The Downey plant built 17 of these modules, six of which were used in unmanned test flights and the other eleven manned. President Kennedy’s challenge to place a human being on the moon by the end of the decade became a reality when the lunar module crew of Apollo 11, carrying astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins, landed on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969.
During the 1970s, the focus of the American space program shifted to the development of a national space transportation system, the central element of which would be a fleet of reusable space shuttles.
In 1972 Rockwell International (renamed from “North American Rockwell” that same year) was awarded a key contract, and the Downey plant once again had an historic role to play in the space program: the subassembly and component manufacture and testing of the first reusable spacecraft – the Space Shuttle orbiters. Over the next 13 years, six orbiters were constructed at the Downey plant: The Enterprise (test craft), the Columbia, the Challenger, the Discovery, the Atlantis, and the Endeavor.
Boeing bought Rockwell’s aerospace and defense business in 1996 and continued on a smaller scale at the Downey plant to provide design support for the next generation of missiles, customer-required shuttle modifications and payload-cargo integration, until 1999, when the remaining activities were relocated to other sites and the NASA site was closed.
-- This included historical recount was adapted as excerpts from Downey’s Aerospace History: 1947-1999 (Images of Aviation) by Gerald A. Blackburn, along with the Aerospace Legacy Foundation. Blackburn was a former engineer with North American Aviation and Boeing. He spent 25 years at the Downey plant. --
Apollo Boiler Plate 12, an unmanned, transonic abort test vehicle, using a Little Joe II booster as a launch vehicle, successfully completed its mission at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico on May 13th, 1964. This was the first full-scale test flight of the launch escape system in the transonic speed range.
The Little Joe II launch vehicle boosted the Apollo boiler plate command-service modules to an approximate altitude of 21,000 feet, where an abort command caused separation of the command module from the service module and ignition of the launch escape and pitch control motors. The launch escape assembly propelled the command module away from the service module and launch vehicle to an approximate altitude of 28,000 feet. The tower was separated from the command module and the tower jettison motor ignited, carrying the launch escape assembly and forward compartment heat shield away from the trajectory of the command module.
The earth landing system was then initiated to accomplish drogue parachute deployment and release, and deployment of three pilot parachutes which, in turn, deployed the three main parachutes. One of the main parachutes did not inflate fully and was separated from the command module; however, Apollo Boiler Plate 12′s command module landed upright and undamaged.
The Apollo Boiler Plate 12 was refurbished and placed on permanent view outside of the Columbia Memorial Space Center.
Rockwell Signature Blocks
Now featured at the Columbia Memorial Space Center are one-of-a-kind signature blocks from Downey’s Rockwell era. After completion of their mission, featured astronauts toured the facility and signed their name in concrete in commemoration to their mission and the area on which their spacecraft was built. After several years in storage, these historical pieces are now on view for the public once more!
Featured signature blocks include those from the following missions: Apollo XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, Apollo-Soyuz, and STS-1, STS-3, STS-4, STS-5, and STS-26.
Apollo XIV: January 31 – February 9, 1971
Astronaut Signatures: Alan Shepard, Stuart Roosa, Edgar Mitchel
During this third lunar landing mission, 93 pounds of Moon rocks were collected and several seismic experiments were conducted. Shepard famously hit two golf balls off the lunar surface. Roosa remained in orbit onboard Kitty Hawk, took photographs of the Moon, and helped germinate several hundred tree seeds that were distributed back on Earth as commemorative Moon Trees.
Apollo XVI: April 16 – 27, 1972
Astronaut Signatures: John Young, Ken Mattingly, Charles Duke
The Apollo 16 mission was the first to land on lunar highlands. Their findings from the Descartes and Cayley regions helped discredit the hypothesis that lunar formations were volcanic in origin. Mattingly was an original member of Apollo 13, but was replaced when he was exposed to the measles. Among other launch delays, Young’s spacesuit encountered dexterity issues and had to undergo trouble-shooting. Duke expressed excitement during his first contact: “Fantastic! Oh, that first foot on the lunar surface is super Tony!”
Skylab III: July 28 – August 25, 1973
Astronaut Signatures: Alan L. Bean, Owen Garriot, Jack Lousma
Skylab III astronauts performed addition repairs to the ailing station. Comprehensive medical research was continued during this mission where the effects of extended flight on physiological adaptation could be examined. In-flight photographs taken from Skylab II revealed “puffy face syndrome” which prompted Skylab III to perform more tests and collect more data on fluid distribution and balance in the human body.
STS-3 Space Shuttle Columbia March 22 – 30, 1982
Astronaut Signatures: Jack Lousma, C. Gordon Fullerton
This was the first shuttle launch where the external tank was left its original orange color (instead of white) in an effort to reduce overall weight and cost. Primary mission objectives were to test the “Canadarm” Remote Manipulator System (RMS) and carry out external thermal testing of Columbia. With all objectives completed and a delayed landing due to flooding at Edwards Air Force Base in California (original landing site), the crew was able to enjoy what Lousma described as “an extra day in our world’s favorite vacation spot”. Fullerton had previously flown on Space Shuttle Enterprise test flights.
STS-4 Space Shuttle Columbia June 27 – July 4, 1982
Astronaut Signatures: Henry W. Hartsfield Jr., Thomas K. Mattingly II
STS-4's cargo consisted of nine scientific experiments provided by students from Utah State University and a classified U.S. Air Force missile launch-detection system. Mattingly gained previous flight experience onboard Apollo 16, while STS-4 served as Hartsfield’s first flight with the program. The astronauts were greeted by President Ronald Reagan and his wife after performing the first shuttle landing on a concrete runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Before Space Shuttle Columbia launched on its first mission in 1981, a full size and to-scale space shuttle stood on Downey’s hallowed ground. A 122 foot-long by 35-foot tall wooden mockup was built by North American Rockwell (now Boeing) in 1972 as part of a bid for NASA's space shuttle program. After securing the contract, Rockwell's Downey assembly plant held on to the mockup and used it as a fitting tool for instrument and payloads that were being built for the actual orbiters. During congressional and astronaut visits, it also made a great public relations visual aid. The model remained in Rockwell’s design and engineering room until the Downey plant closed in 1999. The facility was to be remodeled into a movie studio and the mockup was put into storage.
The mockup was removed from storage in 2012 when the City of Downey secured plans to build new commercial buildings on the former Rockwell-Boeing site. The mockup was placed under a temporary tent in front of the Columbia Memorial Space Center, and became available for public viewing after several decades in storage.
In early 2014, the mockup was removed from its viewing location in front of the Columbia Memorial Space Center and placed into a temporary storage facility as new plans for permanent housing and funding are considered by city officials.
Challenger Learning Center
Return to the Moon, Voyage to Mars or Rendezvous With Comet Halley in our space mission simulator!
Challenger Center for Space Science Education offers dynamic, hands-on exploration and discovery opportunities to students around the world. These programs equip students with the knowledge, confidence, and skills that will help better our national social and economic well-being.
Your visit to the Challenger Learning Center in Downey, California is not just a field trip — it’s a unique hands-on learning experience, transforming you into a scientist, engineer, or researcher on a simulated space mission, complete with mission control and spacecraft. From the moment of lift-off to the completion of the mission, you become a critical member of one of eight mission teams. Participants will have the opportunity to become both mission controller and spacecraft astronaut.
Inside the center, groups of 16 to 36 students in grades 5 and up become crew members on a simulated space mission. Excitement builds as they return to the moon as a crew.
Crew members must solve real-life problems in math, science and technology to successfully complete their mission. Each team is critical, and the success of the mission is dependent upon the work of all teams. The two-hour simulation takes place in a realistic mock-up of a spacecraft and mission control room.
We welcome people of all ages to explore space science like they never have before. With hands-on robotics presentations and its very own Challenger Learning Center, the Columbia Memorial Space Center has become a staple institution in City of Downey and Los Angeles Area.
The Columbia Memorial Space Center is the only space science learning center in the Los Angeles area dedicated to hands-on robotics and boasts LA’s only Challenger Learning Center. We are also dedicated to preserving the history of aerospace engineering in Downey. During your visit, you will learn about Downey’s place in the exploration of space flight, from the Apollo capsules to the Space Shuttle Orbiters.
We are currently working to preserve and display several major space engineering artifacts, ranging from test capsules to a full-scale Space Shuttle mock-up. Every Apollo Command Module and Space Shuttle were conceptualized, designed, and assembled on the site our Center now resides.
Our goal is to teach young people about careers in space exploration and aviation. We focus on engineering, technology and science.
The Columbia Memorial Space Center is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00am to 5:00pm, and is closed Sunday and Monday.
We offer guided tours of our facility to groups of any age, including groups with disabilities and those who require special attention.
We also offer specialized classes and workshops for students in pre-K to college in topics such as space science, robotics, and rocketry.
Visit our website for more information on our seasonal classes, special guests speakers, and star gazing events.