June 12, 2012
Inside a warehouse in Downey, California, a one-winged space shuttle sits underneath a blanket of Tyvek sheeting. It’s not a real space shuttle. Well, it sort of is? Let’s just say it played a real role in shuttle history.
While space museums around the country were competing fiercely to be the next home for Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour, and Enterprise, and even a couple months ago, when Houston was finally rewarded with the mock-up Explorer shuttle that used to greet space fans at Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Center, this unnamed shuttle in Southern California went largely unknown and un-fought for.
It’s a full-scale mock-up that was built in 1972 by Rockwell International (now Boeing) as part of the original space shuttle Request for Proposals process. When NASA awarded Rockwell the contract, the mock-up was kept on site and became the hands-on model for much of the shuttle’s design. Each time a new instrument was built, it was placed into the mostly plastic and wood panels to make sure it would fit properly with the existing structure. Model payloads were fitted in the cargo bay; it even has an aluminum (and non-functioning) Canadarm. The mock-up only has one wing because, of course, two would be redundant for a bird that wasn’t flying anywhere. Over the decades, this artifact lived the history of the space shuttle’s evolution.
The building where the shuttle sits now has an even longer aerospace history. The original hangars in Downey, just outside of Los Angeles, were where North American Aviation developed the P-51 Mustang and the XB-70 supersonic bomber. Later, when the company became North American Rockwell, they built the Apollo command module there. Boeing took over the facility during the shuttle years, and held the aerospace factory until 1999, when the Downey plant was closed. The next year, the city purchased the shuttle mock-up from NASA, and eventually sold the buildings and airfields to the Industrial Realty Group, which leased it to a film studio (which then built a six million-gallon fake lake on the property). IRG agreed to keep housing the shuttle, but it would have to be moved out of the way of the cameras.
The city of Downey enlisted a conservation company to undertake the relocation project. The mock-up was carefully disassembled, during which time it was discovered that it wasn’t just used for instrumentation upgrades during the shuttle fleet’s lifetime, but was also used to work out changes in the original design. From a report by Griswold Conservation Associates:
Evidence of previous configurations of the mock-up was revealed upon separation of the wing from the fuselage. Black and white paint configurations and other markings made with adhered striping tape suggested an earlier configuration, seen in an early photograph. Further research showed that the meeting point of the OMS system housings flanking the vertical stabilizer with the back end of the cargo bay door reflected an earlier version, later changed by NASA.
Fast forward another decade, and the property is changing hands yet again. The studio has closed, and because IRG plans to build commercial developments on the property, they’re insisting that the city finally take possession of the shuttle. The Downey City Council will meet tonight to finalize those plans, (according to a local paper, The Downey Beat), which includes relocating the shuttle to a storage facility at a nearby parking lot — also owned by IRG, which will lease the space for $1. Between $100,000 from IRG and a federal community development grant, the city wouldn’t have to cough up much to house the shuttle, at least in the first year. The Beat reports that IRG will lease the new site to the city for two years, and then the piece of aerospace history is going to need yet another home.
Where will it go then? The city of Downey could build a permanent structure for the shuttle and, since the mock-up isn’t a precious white-glove-only artifact like the three space-traveling orbiters, it could allow visitors to crawl around inside — which might make it worth visiting over its soon-to-be-neighbor Endeavour. Or they could probably make a bundle by offering it up to cities like Dayton, which desperately wanted an orbiter, but lost out in the competition.
What say you, Downey? What’s to become of this piece of American space history?
June 6, 2012
Ray Bradbury, author of The Martian Chronicles and other landmark books of science fiction, passed away last night at the age of 91.
In his 2006 biography, The Bradbury Chronicles, Sam Weller tells about the time the famous author was assigned by LIFE magazine to write about the Apollo astronauts. Arriving in Houston on January 13, 1967, just a couple of weeks before the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire, Bradbury visited the Johnson Space Center.
Right from the start, Ray encountered fans. One of the first NASA administrators Ray met told him that his favorite book was Dandelion Wine. Ray spent the afternoon touring the NASA facilities, taking in the vast technologies: flight simulators, lasers, flight suits, and the centrifuge, in which astronauts were exposed to g-forces.
That evening, Ray dined in Houston with astronauts Jim Lovell and John Young, Richard Gordon and Pete Conrad and their wives. “Gordon and Young have qualities of Buck Jones, Bob Steele, Tom Mix about them,” Ray wrote in his notes. “They are short, compact men, economically built. Young is shy. Gordon more direct, but there is the familiar echo of the intellectual cowpuncher here. Something out of my own memory perhaps. Conrad is the clown of the bunch, much fun to watch and listen to. Lovell very friendly and easy and the proverbial host.”
In the days that followed, while visiting the Johnson Space Center, Ray attended a press briefing. He sat in the back of the conference room as one by one the young horses were trotted out—nearly sixty Apollo astronauts, as Ray recalled, the primary teams and the alternates. They were all present: Armstrong, Aldrin, Grissom, Lovell. They were clean-cut kids, all-American types, with blindingly white smiles and military crew cuts, and courage taller and mightier than the Saturn rockets they would ride on. When someone in the room announced that Ray Bradbury was present—Ray Bradbury, the author—at least half of the astronauts looked up, alert, scanning the room excitedly. Several of them approached Ray after the conference. As young dreamers with imaginations fixed squarely on the stars, many of them credited Ray, and specifically The Martian Chronicles, as an early inspiration. Ray suddenly found himself surrounded by American heroes, who were worshiping him. The kid from Green Town—Buck Rogers, as so many in the literary community had disparagingly deemed him—had done good.
April 26, 2012
If the reaction of Washingtonians to last week’s space shuttle flyover is anything to go by, New Yorkers are in for a thrill.
Space shuttle Enterprise is scheduled to fly over New York City between 9:30 and 11:30 on Friday morning, riding on the back of a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft on its way from the National Air and Space Museum’s Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center to its new home at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum on the Hudson River. NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration won’t say exactly what the flight path will be, but they intend to fly over familiar landmarks like the Statue of Liberty (photo op!). These folks claim to have advance knowledge of the route, and offer advice on the best viewing spots.
Honestly, though, it didn’t much matter where you were standing in Washington last week. Discovery flew several slow loops over much of the metro area, and millions of people had the chance to get a close-up view, even if they hadn’t expected to. I had stationed myself on the roof of our office building, just a block off the National Mall (a prime spot!) when I got a call from my daughter Eleanor, on a school field trip about 30 miles south of the city. “Hey Dad, we just saw the space shuttle fly right over our bus!” What??!
It’s okay, I got a great view, too. And it’s a visual spectacle you should be sure to catch if you’re in New York tomorrow.
Washingtonians can now see Discovery for themselves on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center, or, if you really need to keep constant watch over it, bookmark this live webcam.
Also, the app-ized version of our Shuttle Collector’s Edition is now available on iTunes: The Space Shuttle Era: Stories From 30 Years of Exploration. For the iPad, we were able to add lots more photos and multimedia—including a spectacular time-lapse video of Discovery being prepared for launch—to the in-depth features and dozens of first-hand astronaut stories that appeared in the magazine version.
We did not, however, include this panoramic photo of Discovery and Enterprise together at the Udvar-Hazy Center, taken during last week’s ceremonies by photographer Mark Usciak of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Usciak had shot more than 40 shuttle launches over 30 years, starting with STS-1. So you know he had to be there for Discovery‘s retirement.
Update, Friday April 27, 9:56 a.m.
Enterprise is in the air, headed for New York.
April 18, 2012
All over Washington D.C. yesterday morning, cameras were clicking, texters were OMG’ing, and fingers were pointing at the town’s newest celebrity: Space Shuttle Discovery, which flew in from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to go on permanent display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles airport, starting Thursday. Follow us on Twitter (@airspacemag) as we report on the day’s festivities.
If you missed Discovery and its carrier aircraft as they flew wide circles over the metro area for about an hour, you can see pictures here and here. New Yorkers will get to see a similar show when shuttle Enterprise arrives on Monday, April 23 at its new home at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.
This clip from the Smithsonian Channel explains why all the fuss.
February 1, 2012
NASA’s Open Government initiative is tasked with “expanding transparency, participation, and collaboration and creating a new level of openness and accountability.” Part of accomplishing those goals is finding a way to present NASA, its mission, and the volumes of data it collects to the public in an easy-to-understand “I’m not a scientist” way.
Recently they’ve been working on this pretty neat “Global Exploration Roadmap” to illustrate the upcoming endeavors for the space program, including trips to asteroids and Mars. The graphic itself is pretty snazzy, but if you head over to the interactive site, you can click on each section to get more information. For those of us with a deep interest in space exploration, it’s mostly a pretty poster (I printed one out for my office wall!), but for folks who only keep up a casual interest — or want to get more educated while hearing the presidential candidates discuss future space programs — this is a fantastic way to quickly get caught up on the initiatives already planned for the next decade.
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