Columbia Memorial Space Center
As early as 1929, Downey was a hub of the airplane industry. Near the cross-streets of Zimm Road & Cerritos Ave., now Imperial Highway and Lakewood Blvd., respectively, was EMSCO Aircraft Corporation building (far back left corner). 73-acres of land owned by James Hughan, who farmed mostly orange groves and castor beans, were purchased by E.M. Smith, a wealthy industrialist, and quickly developed into two runways and an assembly plant that manufactured a full line of aircraft used for setting flying records and new air routes.
E.M. Smith, pictured here with his B-8 "Flying Wing" triple motored monoplane, manufactured a complete line of land and water aircraft along with his chief design engineer Gerard "Jerry" Vultee whom he hired from Lockheed Aircraft Company. The Great Depression ruined much of the aircraft market soon after, prompting the EMSCO plant to be leased to three different owners from 1932 - 1936, including Walter "Bert" Kinner, who manufactured airplanes for Amelia Earhart.
In 1936, Jerry Vultee leased the idle Downey facility from Baker Oil Tools Company and moved Aviation Manufacturing Corporation there from its smaller hangar-plant in Glendale, California. Beginning with the successful V1-A model, the plant's size, production, and personnel doubled by 1940. As World War II loomed, the plant protected itself from possible enemy detection by camouflaging their buildings to look like surrounding orange groves and farmland.
During the early 1940's, Vultee Aircraft Corporation became the first major manufacturer to use powered assembly lines, producing the "Valiant Basic Trainer" (like the BT-13 model in this photograph) for the U.S. Army Air Corps. Vultee's Downey plant also accounted for 15 percent of all military aircraft being produced in the nation.
As the war continued, Vultee received extensive military contracts to build their basic training planes for Army, Navy, and Marine pilots. As many of Downey's men went off to war, Vultee became the first military aircraft manufacturer to employ women directly in production, providing them with the exact same pay for equivalent work as men.
With a keen eye for progress in aerospace, Lee Atwood, president of North American Aviation, reorganized the Downey division in 1960 to better position itself for the future. The Space & Information Systems Division (S-ID) of Downey would soon bid - and win - contracts for the Saturn S-II launch vehicle system and the Project Apollo Spacecraft Development Program. Downey was now the industrial center for the lunar mission that President John F. Kennedy called for in his 1961 speech.
S&ID employment nearly tripled to 16,000 in its first year on the Saturn/Apollo projects, reaching 25,000 by the end of 1964. Construction and testing was feverish with the biggest aerospace companies to the smallest back shops involved in the Apollo effort, in addition to hundreds of universities and laboratories from around the country.
In only four years, the S&ID facilities grew to over five million square feet of offices and factories, adding buildings to the original plant site and to the surrounding suburbs. An array of visitors to Downey, not limited to employees, included NASA personnel, newsmen, government officials, and junketing scientists.
The unmanned Apollo test flights of the mid-1960's were declared successes, but a fatal accident on February 21, 1968 involving the first manned Apollo Saturn flight ground test interceded plans of an earlier lunar mission. Pictured here are the crew members of Apollo 1 during their visit to the testing facilities in Downey. Although NASA's selection of North American for the Apollo project was heavily questioned, the Downey team set out to correct flaws in design and assembly, and prepared the Apollo 8 command module for its mission to circumnavigate the Moon within one year.
In 1967, North American Aviation merged with Rockwell Standard Corporation, a commercial manufacturer. In 1972, North American Rockwell bid and won the NASA contract to build the new Space Shuttle Orbiter vehicle.The Space Transportation System (STS), its official, lesser known name, is the only winged manned spacecraft to have achieved orbit and land, and the only reusable space vehicle that has ever made multiple flights into orbit.
The Space Shuttle mockup, now fittingly named Inspiration, was built by Rockwell International to help promote their bid for the orbiter program. The full-scale model was then used 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 opening of the Columbia Memorial Space Center in 2009 marked a new beginning for Downey as it set out to launch the next generation of leaders in math and science. While it highlights Downey's 70 year history of aerospace on that site, its main mission is to inspire children and young adults to learn and explore, use their imagination, and to propel them into the future by teaching them about careers in space exploration and aviation.
The Columbia Memorial Space Center is the only space science learning center in the Los Angeles area dedicated to engineering, technology, and science. During a visit, guests can learn about Downey’s place in the exploration of space flight, from the Apollo capsules to the Space Shuttle Orbiters, while also participating in classes and workshops on robotics, space science, planetary science, and physics.
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 Apollo Boiler Plate 12 was refurbished after spending years in the Rockwell Downey facility and placed on permanent view outside of the Columbia Memorial Space Center.
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.
Guests of the Columbia Memorial Space Center are invited to learn about 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.
The Challenger crew of STS-51L mission, lost seconds after take-off on January 28, 1986, is also honorably remembered at the Columbia Memorial Space Center with the Challenger Learning Center. In the only CLC in the greater Los Angeles area, participants experience the real-life excitement of working in Mission Control and a Spacecraft following 51-L's scheduled task of observing Comet Halley and the lessons that were to be carried out as part of the Teacher in Space Project.
The full size and to-scale model built by North American Rockwell in 1972 as part of a bid for NASA's shuttle program remained out of the public's eye for nearly 40 years.
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 became temporarily available for public viewing until early 2014 when Inspiration (as it was named in 2012) was placed into a city storage facility after original plans for permanent housing and funding were reconsidered by city officials.
Rockwell Signature Blocks on display 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 of their mission and the area on which their spacecraft was built.
A replica EVA (extra-vehicular activity) space suit from NASA’s Space Shuttle Program is on interactive display at the Columbia Memorial Space Center that allows guests to engage with the multi-layered suit designed for astronaut's comfort, utility, and protection from the harsh environment of space.