Columbia Memorial Space Center (and R.I.P. Neil Armstrong)

Of course, we acknowledge the death of Neil Armstrong this past weekend. Neil Armstrong is dead, and we’re the grown-ups now.

Neil Armstrong (NASA)

We are working on a piece that we will probably post at The Huffington Post later this week. Many have weighed in on the man’s accomplishments and the meaning of his death, and we have some thoughts to add. So we’ll join the conversation at The Huffington Post that includes Margaret Lazarus Dean, Seth Shostack, and others. With much being written and much of it incredibly eloquent, we are taking our time with this one. In some ways, that sentence above—Neil Armstrong is dead, and we’re the adults now—captures something about our larger sense of being the space generation.

So today, here, we look back a couple of months to share information about a science museum. In June, Doug and his colleague Rand Boyd had a chance to give a talk about the Roger and Roberta Boisjoly NASA Challenger Disaster Collection, which is housed in Chapman University’s Leatherby Libraries. The venue for Doug and Rand’s talk was the Columbia Memorial Space Center.

The Columbia Memorial Space Center is located just across the street from the historic North American Aviation (NAA) plant in Downey, California. The NAA plant played an integral role in the United State’s aerospace history. During its seventy-year run as an aircraft, missile, and spacecraft factory, historic aviation names such as Champion, Curtis, Vultee, Consolidated, Convair, North American, North American-Rockwell, and Boeing all passed through the site. At the beginning of World War II, fully one-seventh of the military’s aircraft were being manufactured at the Downey plant.

These days, the former aircraft factory is home to Downey Studios, a film production space where Iron Man (1 and 2), Space Cowboys, and Cloverfield (among dozens of others) were filmed, at least in part. But, in the 1960s and 1970s, the NAA plant was front and center in America’s manned space program. The Apollo Command and Service Modules were built at this facility, as were significant portions of the space shuttle orbiters. Even today, a remaining space shuttle—albeit a one-winged, engineering mock-up without a permanent home—is being housed at Downey Studios. There is a movement afoot to ensure that the Columbia Memorial Space Center becomes the permanent home to the shuttle mock-up, but for now, the center will have to settle for becoming the mock-up’s most recent temporary home.

Mural at Columbia Memorial Space Center

Obviously given Downey’s strong connection to aerospace history, it’s no accident that the city of Downey chose this location for the site of the Columbia Memorial Space Center. On the day that Doug visited the center, more than two hundred fifth-graders from a local school had also visited the center. That kind of activity fits neatly with the center’s educational mission, which is focused on serving as a hands-on activity center for space science. As would be expected, the center has a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) program, one that has a core focus on flight, robotics, and engineering. Many NASA-affiliated programs are accelerating past STEM and heading for STEAM, so, given its location and history, it would be interesting to see if the Columbia Memorial Space Center is able to somehow forge a tie-in with film making and its current programs.

The Columbia Memorial Space Center was created as a national memorial to the crew of STS-107, seven astronauts who died when the orbiter Columbia broke apart during reentry. (Related Lofty Ambitions blog posts HERE and HERE.) One of the first images that grabs and holds your attention as you enter the center is a wall-sized mosaic of Columbia’s last mission. The seven thousand individual images that unite to form the mosaic are snapshots of Columbia, the seven-member crew, and their training and preparation. When taken in its entirety, the mosaic is a compelling image of the moment that the STS-107 crew left the Earth for the last time. Up close, the individual images are a hauntingly intimate and personal glimpse into the lives of seven professionals who died doing something they loved.

The facility also houses a Challenger Learning Center. In this learning space, kids become members of a space shuttle crew on a simulated mission to return to the Moon or go to Mars. This part of the center is designed for groups and requires reservations, so area teachers should check it out.

The Columbia Memorial Space Center is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00a.m. to 5:00p.m, with shortened hours on Sunday from 11:00a.m. to 3:00p.m.

Doug and Rand had a great time at the Columbia Memorial Space Center, and Anna will undoubtedly make the trip next time there’s an opportunity. In the meantime, Doug and Rand are considering ways to bring the Boisjoly collection to more people. Feel free to contact us via email if you have ideas for that project.


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