On Saturday, I went on a tour of the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey. Atlas Obscura’s Ben Harmon was the organizer and our host was the Center’s Ben Dickow. The first part was a presentation about the history of the Center and the second part was checking out the various exhibits. Just inside the entrance is a beautiful photomosaic of the Columbia’s crew.
My only previous exposure to the SoCal aviation scene was The Rocketeer, so I was simply astonished by all that happened here. As soon as the Wright Brothers showed it could be done, many aviation start-ups appeared in SoCal, where space was plentiful. The area between Santa Monica (later pushed up to Simi Valley), Long Beach, and Palmdale was a “Golden Triangle” of aviation, with countless companies designing and building their aircraft along the coast and then doing final assembly and testing in the desert.
Specifically at the site of the museum in Downey, it started humbly with local entrepreneur E. M. Smith and his company, EMSCO. It folded because of the Depression, but the space was next taken by Bert Kinner’s Security National Aircraft Corporation, which built two planes for Amelia Earhart and pioneered folded-wing aircraft, which revolutionized naval aviation.
Next at the site was Aviation Manufacturing Corporation’s Vultee Aircraft Division at the suggestion of Gerard “Jerry” Vultee, who once worked for EMSCO as their chief design engineer. Vultee’s BT-13 Valiant was the chief training aircraft for the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. Rosie the Riveter worked at the Downey site assembling these planes!
Vultee was spun off and then had a merger/buy-out by North American Aviation, which made the B‑25 Mitchell famously used in the Doolittle Raid.
After the end of World War II, orders for planes dropped sharply, so North American pivoted to rocket technology. The SM-64 Navaho was essentially a modified V‑2, but refinement led to the AGM-28 Hound Dog, America’s main nuclear deterrent for many years.
When President Kennedy announced that America would put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, no one was sure how that would happen. But because of North American’s experience with rocket technology, they won the contract to do it. Around this time, the Downey site was officially bought out by NASA and then leased to North American as a contractor on the mission.
Ben Dickow invited Jerry Blackburn in as a guest speaker, who actually worked on site at the time. He told us it was a crazy and magical time for them, because the project was answering questions no one had thought to ask before. Ben Dickow called it the “ultimate makerspace.” The Rocketdyne division of North American built a small nuclear reactor on the Downey site to power the facility, and built the larger commercial nuclear power plant at Santa Susanna when they were spun off into their own facility in Simi Valley. Jerry also told us about building giant centrifuges just because someone thought it would be a good idea to test the effect of G‑forces on materials, making a 250-foot-high crane over a pool to perform splash down tests, and shooting fuel tanks with pellet guns to test resistance to space debris.
All of this experimentation came to bear fruit in form of the Little Joe rocket that carried Mercury and Gemini capsules into space. This in turn led to North American getting the contract to design and build the Apollo command modules along with the second-stage Saturn rockets that would carry them. (When they won that contract, Jerry said the director told a manager to fill his pick-up with ice and champagne and head to the local bar. The whole town was invited to a party that went on for three days!)
The Downey site became Engineering Control for the Apollo program. This was where the failed Apollo I command module was returned for study and refinement after the disaster in Florida. The famous scene in Apollo 13 where engineers need to find a way to fix life support for the astronauts? That was on a conference table in Downey!
After the Apollo Program wound down, North American Rockwell, as it was known at this point, was not sure what to do with itself. They actually stopped so suddenly that they had leftover Saturn rockets that ended up converted to Skylab. So they built a to-scale engineering mock-up of the space shuttle (still in storage on-site) and sold NASA on it. The original orbiter design was a glider designed to be launched from the back of a modified Boeing 747, and while Boeing did eventually acquire Rockwell, the design was changed to be launched with the help of booster rockets. The engine on the orbiter, itself, though, can still trace its roots back to the Navajo.
As the space shuttle program was winding down, Boeing shut down the Downey site, and much of it has been redeveloped. All that remains is the Columbia Memorial Space Center and the disused former main building, which is in need of seismic retrofit.
The museum is in fact a memorial for both the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles.
Ben Dickow told us about how his vision was to be a museum of the 21st Century. He wants the Columbia Memorial Space Center to be very interactive and very distributed. They want to keep the museum’s physical footprint small but do as much outreach as possible, bringing presentations and exhibits to guests in order to inspire STEM study and indirect science learning.
That said, they do have some very cool stuff there. Downstairs, there is are exhibits on propulsion and aerodynamics (air pump rockets, a controllable model plane in a wind tunnel, and a small drop test with parachute capsules). Upstairs there is a real space suit you can take pictures inside and computer simulations of landing or docking a space shuttle.
There two stand-out gems, though. First is the robotics lab, where we got to play with LEGO MindStorm Mars rovers.
I got it on my third try. Not bad for someone who was going to do this sort of thing for a career! I’m told the summer robotics camps go into much more detail and challenge, but this was a nice sample. It was my first time playing with a MindStorms kit, and the first time I have done visual programming. Instead of typing out instructions, the MindStorms interface is a bunch of blocks that you drag into place and they get executed along a “track.” I saw the ability to expand the track with loops and conditional statements, but did not need to use those features to accomplish my “mission.” The programming ends up looking like a flow chart, much more intuitive than lines of text code. The lab is open to the public if you want to come in and try your hand!
The second is the Challenger Learning Center. This is an advanced simulator for teams of 12 – 40 split across two rooms, Mission Control and Space Team. At the front of Mission Control is a bank of monitors showing the Space Team. Every member of Mission Control is assigned to a different aspect of the mission, and gets two screens of stats and a mission binder, just like at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Space Team goes next door after putting on “space suits” and going through an “airlock.” There, each member is assigned to a different station where they are responsible for either performing experiments in space, keeping an on essential systems, or flying the shuttle. As the simulation goes on, “emergencies” pop up and both sides of the team must work to solve them.
Oh, and not to bury the lead or anything, but Ben told us that they are doing an “alien invasion” re-vamp for Halloween, which will have an “escape room” type of scenario! I would absolutely love to try this, who’s with me?
Since I was in the area, I went down the street to the oldest running McDonald’s in the world.
The sign has their “Speedee” character from before Ronald McDonald. The store itself is walk-up only. The seating area contains a museum with some history about the McDonald brothers and Ray Kroc. I was disappointed to find that the store only has the standard current McDonald’s menu, no unique stuff like old DQ’s.