January 28, 2018

Memorializing Disasters in Space Flight

For anyone born around 1975, the Challenger disaster was a big deal. We remember it—being shown the footage in school—the way that my mother must remember watching the JFK assassination on TV.

It seemed incomprehensible.

It was a time when young schoolgirls idolized the first [Ed: American] woman in Space, Sally Ride.

Three years later, Christa McAuliffe was to follow in her space boots. But on January 28, 1986—midway through my fifth-grade year—the Challenger exploded and broke apart into two pieces just 73 seconds after launch. All seven crew members died.

That was 32 years ago. I was 10.

But there's another space shuttle disaster that, in terms of human death toll, was just as bad, just 15 years ago: the Columbia, which disintegrated upon reentry after its mission  STS-107 on February 1, 2003.

It also killed all seven of its crew members.

The image of the Challenger becoming obliterated into two puffs of smoke is an image I wish I could forget, like the cloud coming out of the side of one of the World Trade Center towers. But in 2003, I was long out of school. I was knee-deep in my life working in the music industry in New York City. To be honest, I don't really remember the Columbia disaster happening.

Fortunately, both orbitors are memorialized at the Columbia Memorial Space Center, built upon the former site of the NASA Industrial Plant in Downey, CA.

Marked at the entrance by Apollo Boiler Plate 12’s command module...

...the Columbia Memorial Space Center is a hands-on space museum with interactive displays like robotic arms, a gravity well, a shuttle simulator, robotics lab, rocket launcher, and of course an astronaut suit photo opp.

There's also the Challenger Learning Center, where you can simulate a return to the moon...

...or a voyage to Mars.

It seems fitting that this living tribute to the crew of the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster be located on the site where the space shuttles were actually built... the former Vultee Aircraft Plant (circa mid-1930s), later known as Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation (Convair) and, in response to President Kennedy's proclamation that launched the "space race," the Resident Apollo Spacecraft Office (RASPO).

Unfortunately, much of that original manufacturing and assembly complex responsible for the space shuttles that ended in disaster—known as North American Aviation—has been razed, paved over, and converted into a strip mall.

In fact, in one of the only remaining buildings, there's a T-Mobile store, though the inside has been gutted.

That's just around the bend from—and technically part of the same structure as—the Vultee Aircraft Company rotunda entrance at 12214 Lakewood Boulevard, designed by architect Gordon B. Kaufmann.

It's currently unoccupied, though presumably it's been spared the bulldozer.

This campus once housed over 300 astronauts, government contractors, and support personnel during the peak of the Apollo program...

...but at the peak of the plant (circa the mid-1960s), it actually was home to 35,000 workers.

From 1972 to 1985, a total of six vessels for "space transportation" (a.k.a. reusable spacecraft, which was a new thing) came out of the Downey plant: the Enterprise, the Columbia, the Challenger, the Discovery, the Atlantis, and the Endeavor.

But even before the Columbia disaster—widely attributed to a problem with a piece of foam that came flying off, a problem that NASA had known about for quite some time—the aerospace and defense business at the Downey plant was purchased by Boeing in 1996.

It subsequently continued on a smaller scale, until NASA relocated the remaining activities relocated to other sites and the NASA site was closed in 1999.

By then, the Columbia had been successfully accomplishing a variety of space missions for nearly two decades—including the very first flight of the space shuttle program in 1981.

But upon the near-completion of its 28th mission, when it disastrously killed all seven of its crew members in 2003, NASA suspended space shuttle flights while it investigated the accident over the course of two years.

It had been the Space Shuttle program's 113th flight.

And ultimately, the spacecraft that kicked off the Space Shuttle program essentially ended it, directly leading to the retirement of the entire fleet in 2011.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena
Spotting the Shuttle Endeavour on the Streets of LA
Photo Essay: Where Airplanes Go To Rest

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