Cradle of the Cosmic Age

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.

Columbia Mosaic

History

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.

Aircraft

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.

Rockets

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.

Spacecraft

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!

Space Shuttle

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.

Downey site

Exhibits

The muse­um is in fact a memo­ri­al for both the Chal­lenger and Columbia space shut­tles.

Challenger and Columbia dual memorials

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?

Bonus

Since I was in the area, I went down the street to the old­est run­ning McDonald’s in the world.

Oldest McDonalds

Oldest McDonalds sign

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.

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