They used to make spaceships here

Craft & Design Rockets

As the current Space Shuttle mission (STS-125) comes to a close, the Shuttle is nearing the end of its functional life, its final mission slated for 2010. On a recent visit to Downey, CA, near Los Angeles, I had the chance to visit a series of buildings, now empty, that were the birthplace of the Shuttle, and before it, the Apollo spacecraft. In fact, it’s the birthplace of the American aerospace industry. Today, these buildings bear the name Downey Studios because some of them are in use by moviemakers. Yet these still-standing hulks suggest the size and significance of what was once built there, and the echoes of engineers who lived out their careers there can still be heard. I met with members of Aerospace Legacy Foundation, headed by Gerry Blackburn, which exists in a few cluttered rooms on site. It’s a home away from home for some of these retired engineers like Gerry, who worked here from the time he graduated high school until the plant, then owned by Boeing, closed in 1999. The foundation hopes to preserve the history of this site for future generations to learn how we made spaceships here. Did you buy or collect aircraft models as a kid?

When I first walked in the Aerospace Legacy Foundation offices, filled with metal filing cabinets, I saw a model of X-15. I had that model on my bookshelf as kid and it was the stuff of dreams. I was soon to note all kinds of models, large and small, on site at Downey.


Gerry gave me an overview of the facility, which sits on approximately 90 acres. In 1929, an aircraft manufacturing facility was built on the site, and it went through a succession of owners, a consistent theme of the day.


One of these owners was Gerry Vultee, who was an aircraft designer in the 1930s. His company became known as Consolidated Vultee and a logo for that company was uncovered when some old carpet was removed in the lobby of the main building.


During World War II, Vultee Aircraft produced the BT-13 Valiant, a basic trainer. The site eventually became occupied by North American Aviation, which worked on missiles and rocket propulsion in addition to guidance and avionics. When President Kennedy, in 1961, announced the plan to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, the Downey plant was awarded two contracts from the new NASA to design the Saturn V lunar launch vehicle (which was built in Seal Beach nearby) and build the Apollo Command and service modules. NAA become Rockwell Aviation and later merged into Boeing.

Signs of the previous uses of the site remain. Below is the platform for the air control tower when it was once an airfield.


The factory buildings had sawtooth roofs, facing north, which allowed natural light in. However, during World War II, the exterior of the plant was covered in camouflage and its windows were painted black. After the war, it wasn’t deemed worth the effort to remove the paint.


Building 290, which has Downey Studios painted across it, was built with a small bay and a large bay, where the components of the Apollo rocket could be assembled and tested. The colors of the building reflect the afterlife of the plant; it was mostly beige. Inside Building 290 was an airlock and a clean room environment painted entirely white. “Every Apollo that ever flew was assembled on the property,” said Gerry proudly.


Still onsite are two different “boilerplates” of the Apollo capsule, which were built for different kinds of testing. One was used to test the parachute system. There was once a large pool and crane for testing the buoyancy of the capsule. (ALF link.) (Gerry said that during the initial test in Long Beach Harbor, the capsule sank within five minutes.)


I met a few of the men who worked at the plant. Gerry started working here at 19. Another man named Marv came here directly after graduating from the University of Cincinnati and has spent his entire working life here. “We were maybe the last ones to think of working for a company for your entire life,” said Gerry. The workforce was in its mid-twenties in the sixties, the heyday of the Apollo program. Many of them also worked on the Space Shuttle in their late-forties and into their fifties, when they retired with the closing of the plant.

Gerry talked about working with NASA in the beginning. NASA was treated as a client. “They were the scientists and we were the engineers. They had lots of ideas and we told them which ones we could make work.” There was tension in that relationship and over the years, NASA increased its own engineering capabilities. I got the sense that things became more bureaucratic over time, which perhaps led to this sign-mod I saw onsite.


Nearby is the recently-built Columbia Memorial Space Center, which will open this fall. It is an interactive center for kids to learn about space and will incorporate some of the history of the Downey site.


On my visit, the best was saved for last. One might say that the Space Shuttle began as a model, a full-scale model, built out of wood. It sits under wraps in one of the large buildings, pretty much in the dark.

Space Shuttle Mockup - 02

Space Shuttle Mockup - 01

The model was built to help sell the Shuttle design and gain the bid for its development. It was also used in testing the design. The Boeing plant built the front and back ends of the shuttle — the most important pieces, I was told, while others parts were built by subcontractors.

Space Shuttle Mockup - 09

Gerry said that there were two different wing designs considered for the shuttle. One was a stub-wing, favored by most of the designers. But an alternative design with a longer wingspan won out because the DOD weighed — they were considering using the Shuttle for military use. “Considering” said Gerry, with some cynicism.

Space Shuttle Mockup - 13

The seventy-year history of the Downey site is an account of the expansion and collapse of the aircraft and aerospace industry in Southern California. St. Louis was the center of military aviation with McDonnell-Douglas. Seattle became the center of commercial aviation with Boeing. But Southern California emerged as the leader in aerospace.

I asked Gerry why southern California had played the role it did. His single word answer was “weather.” The great weather meant more days to get up in the air and fly. Once established, however, there was a pool of technical talent in the Los Angeles area that could not be found elsewhere. In the 1990’s, NASA had wanted to move manufacturing to the southeast, closer to Cape Kennedy. There were political reasons it stayed in California as long as it did, but the chief reason was the quality and quantity of engineers, many of whom did not want to leave LA for the southeast. According to Gerry, only 20% agreed to relocate when the plant closed in 1999. Perhaps some of them joined efforts to establish a new private space industry.

Astronauts get most of the attention and applause, but their lives were in the hands of the builders of these incredible spacecraft, which started out as designs and models, before becoming reality. (Now Downey Studios has small teams of makers who create the illusion of reality to feed our dreams.) The Space Shuttle is near the end of its operating life and it will be five years or more before NASA begins to use the next generation spacecraft.

For more photos from my visit, check out my Aerospace Legacy Foundation set on Flickr.

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DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

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