Downey hopes to highlight its role in space history

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On the surface, Downey, California, looks like any other L.A. suburb. It has strip malls, wide streets and block after block of homes.

But from the early 1960s to the late '90s, Downey's Rockwell plant helped America explore space by designing and building lunar capsules and space shuttles.

The plant closed in 1999 and since then, much of that story has faded. But residents like Andrew Wahlquist hope to bring it back to the forefront.

"Downey's slogan has been 'Future Unlimited' because we always kind of held this idea that we reach for stars," he said. "So when we lost our plant, we kind of lost that larger goal."

Wahlquist founded the Downey Arts Coalition and this month, the organization is putting on a play called "Defying Gravity." It tells the story of the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster.

Even though it's a sad story, Wahlquist says the city should take pride in the fact that that shuttle, and all other space shuttles, came from designs made in Downey.

At its peak, the city's Rockwell plant employed 30,000 workers. President Reagan and Queen Elizabeth both visited the sprawling 200 acre facility.

But few in Downey's younger generation know of the city's role in the space race.

"I just thought Downey was like a boring city," said 19-year-old Baselaya Martinez, hanging out at Downing Landing, a shopping mall built where the Rockwell plant once stood.

She says no one she knows talks about the "Space Age" history of her hometown, but once she heard about the important things that happened right where she was standing, she got really excited.

"That's crazy!" she laughed. "It's called 'Downey Landing' for a reason, I guess."

In addition to the mall, a science center also stands in the footprint where the Rockwell plant once was. It's called the Columbia Memorial Space Center and is dedicated to the memory of the crew of the Columbia Space Shuttle that perished in 2003.

Downey Mayor Mario Guerra calls the spot "sacred ground" because so many historic NASA missions got their start there.

Exhibits at the space center highlight many of those missions. Kids who visit can build robots, learn about gravity and operate a replica of a NASA mission control center.

The center opened in late 2009. It cost $10 million to build and requires more than $600,000 a year to operate. Guerra says the city made a choice to prioritize the center, even when it had to cut $11 million from its budget two years back.

Still, Downey doesn't yet have all the funds it needs to build a proper exhibit for the full-size space shuttle prototype it keeps in a tent across the street.

The wooden structure is dubbed Inspiration because it was the model that all space shuttles were based on. Rockwell built the prototype to win a contract from NASA in 1972.

"This is the first, the only one that exists," Guerra said.

Downey city officials are looking to raise $3 million to build a permanent home for the Inspiration.

That amount pales in comparison to the $200 million currently being raised by the California Science Center to house the Endeavour space shuttle. The flight-weathered craft has helped bring more than a million visitors to the Science Center, where it remains a blockbuster attraction.

Still, Mayor Guerra says Inspiration offers something Endeavour can't: a truly hands-on experience.

"It's made out of wood," he said while knocking on the model's side. "You can touch it." 

Guerra hopes that exhibits like this will bring attention to Downey's past and inspire a new generation of local kids to associate their hometown with America's race for the stars.

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