But for many who attended the roll-out of the life-size space shuttle mock-up on Thursday, they heard a different story for the first time.
Space shuttle mock-up project leader Charles Cheathem told about 200 onlookers how the building of the 128-foot long plywood structure marked a giant leap for racially integrating the United States space program.
The executive team for the mock-up project had three black men, a first in the nation’s history.
“To promote ethnic and cultural diversity, we had to get some minorities in the program,” he said of a directive from Rockwell, the builder of the space shuttle. “As I recall we had four African Americans, two American Indians, several Hispanic Americans, one woman and some white folks.”
When nervous laughter rippled across the crowd, Cheathem grinned and looked up from his prepared speech.
“Remember, I’m 82, and I’ve been fighting this battle for years,” he said.
The speech by Cheathem revealed another layer to what just a few months ago was nearly a forgotten piece of space memorabilia hidden away at the old NASA shuttle factory on Lakewood Boulevard.
Since Downey announced it planned to put the mock-up on display, the giant model has garnered national attention, spawning a feature story in the Los Angeles Times and mentions on blogs, newspapers and news websites across the nation.
Half-a-dozen news organizations were on hand during the mock-up rollout Thursday.
Engineer Roland Beanum, who was Cheathem’s right-hand man on the mock-up project, used his time at the podium to urge Downey to include him and the mock-up’s other creators on any restoration of the model. Beanum was responsible for most of the administration and technical work on the mock-up.
“This is a commercial for us,” he said. “Most of our peers are dead, gone. You have a chance to get us involved in the refurbishment of this shuttle. When the money comes in, and people start scrambling around, don’t forget us. Please don’t. We want to be involved. Please.”
It seems the more the city promotes the mock-up, the better the story gets, said Mayor Roger Brossmer.
“Did you hear the pride in their voices?” he said. “How easy for 80 year olds to say, ‘I’m playing golf.’”
“For these guys it was more than a job, it was true passion,” he said.
Brossmer has been one the shuttle’s biggest champions. The next step is for the city to build a home for the shuttle behind the Columbia Memorial Space Center. Such a building would cost between $3 million and $5 million, Brossmer said.
Eventually Brossmer and the rest of the City Council hope to refurbish the shuttle mock-up to the point where children could go inside and take imaginary missions to outer space.
The mock-up, which is owned by the city, has been in storage for decades. Built in 1972, it was initially used as a promotion tool by Rockwell. It later was used as an engineering tool to give the project team a feel for how different components would integrate into the shuttle. All the space shuttles were built in the NASA factory in Downey. The shuttle program was shut down last year, and museums across the nation scrambled to acquire one of the mothballed shuttles.
But Downey had the mock-up all along.
It’s built mostly of plywood, and it only has one wing. Its tail fin is cut off a little short, too. Even so, the city is billing the model as the first full-sized shuttle.
Crews on Thursday moved the shuttle, piece-by- piece, into a temporary tent structure, where it will be stored for about two years while the city raises money for a permanent home.
The tent, which is across from the Space Center on Columbia Way, will be left up as crews demolish the old NASA site to make way for the Tierra Luna office and retail complex. The shuttle mock-up will be open for scheduled tours.
The owners of the property, Industrial Realty Group, will leave the tent up in the parking lot during construction, according to Bob Manarino, the point man for IRG.
The next hurtle for the city is to raise money. While the city spends more than $800,000 each year on the Space Center, it doesn’t have a budget for the mock-up project.
Brossmer said the city will start aggressively pursuing corporate sponsors, and he hopes some commercial space companies, such as Space X, will use the new building to show off technology to the public.
The city also has several other pieces of the nation’s space history. It has a boilerplate command module, which was dropped in the desert to test how well the modules would return to earth. The city also owns the very last of the extended duration orbiters, a storage contraption that allowed astronauts to stay in space for weeks instead of days, according to Jim Busby, a historian for the city. Both artifacts could end up being displayed in a new building.
Downey for the last decade has been pushing hard to draw attention to math and science, and the mock-up is another opportunity for the city to increase interest in technology, Councilman David Gafin said.
“Their efforts are what made America what we are,” Gafin said. “We are sliding somewhat, which is why have this learning center. So we can get back out there and once again be the No. 1 country in the world for space exploration.”