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From Downey, California, to the Moon

Apollo 11 Saturn V Launch, 1969

Apollo 11 Saturn V launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, 1969. Image courtesy of NASA.

On July 20, 1969, at 7:56 p.m., Pacific Standard Time, human beings accomplished what was arguably our most amazing engineering feat ever – to set foot upon the surface of the moon. This was accomplished with no small amount of help from within Los Angeles County – specifically, from the North American Aviation plant in Downey, California. It was there that Apollo 11’s Command and Service Module (CSM, including crew capsule and the supply and engine module behind the capsule) and the second stage for its Saturn V launch vehicle were designed and built. It was the Downey plant’s CSM that safely carried astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins the one half million miles to the moon and back.

Apollo 15 CSM in Orbit Over Moon

Apollo 15 Command and Service Module in orbit over moon as seen from Lunar Lander. Image courtesy of NASA.

In November 1961, NASA awarded North American Aviation the $400 million prime contract to design and build 1) the Apollo CSM, 2) a small rocket system to test Apollo's launch escape system, and 3) the second stage of the Saturn V launch rocket. The company already had a history of designing and building famous aircraft, such as the P-51 Mustang fighter, the B-25 Mitchell bomber, the F-86 Sabre jet fighter, the F-100 Super Sabre supersonic jet fighter, and the X-15 rocket plane. During the 1950s, it participated in building rockets such as Redstone, Jupiter, Thor, Delta, and Atlas. Now, North American had the green light to build a space vehicle that would carry three astronauts to the moon and back. For that task, it already possessed a large plant in Downey that it had taken over from Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft (Convair) in 1948.

Workers Manufacturing Apollo Capsule at Downey Plant, 1968

Engineers and technicians working inside CSM capsule at Downey Plant, 1968. Image courtesy of NASA.

Over the next decade, as many as 35,000 people ended up working on the Apollo program in Downey, designing the CSM, testing it, re-designing it, and re-testing it again. Initially, engineers at North American had little idea what, exactly, a lunar spacecraft should look like. They had helpful design ideas from famed spacecraft designer Maxime “Max” Faget, who designed the earlier Mercury spacecraft. However, no one had ever built a vehicle to carry men as far as the moon. What they knew with certainty was that the mission would be as dangerous as could be imagined. Engineers went to work creating a prototype by building full-scale cardboard models (a “Tepee Village” as it came to be nicknamed). With these, designers determined where the door would be, where instruments and control panels should be placed, and where windows should go. These models were then recreated as metal mock-ups (nicknamed “boiler-plates”) that were then dropped into an enormous on-site water tank from a 143-foot tower, dropped from aircraft, and fired aloft, unmanned, on rockets. The prototypes were subjected to extreme heat and cold and other simulated space hazards.

North American Aviation Plant in Downey

Aerial view of the North American Aviation Plant in Downey, looking south. Lakewood Boulevard in on right. Image courtesy of NASA.

The first manned Apollo mission into space for low-orbit testing was planned for 1966, but, in 1965, North American had problems with development of the CSM, causing delays to the program. This was not unique to North American, however, because Grumman, the contractor for the Lunar Landing Module, also experienced development problems.

Nevertheless, in 1966, NASA was able to successfully launch two unmanned Apollo CSMs into suborbital flight. By 1967, the agency was finally ready to launch its first manned Apollo mission. That January, one month before the first manned launch, during a launch rehearsal test, a flash fire ignited in the Apollo 1 crew cabin at the launch pad. The three astronauts in the capsule, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, were killed. The subsequent investigation partly faulted North American Aviation for the tragedy and the Apollo program was grounded for another year. North American took valuable lessons from the tragedy and removed flammable materials from the crew cabin and redesigned the capsule hatch. The company also went through a corporate merger that year with Rockwell Standard to become North American Rockwell. In 1974, the company changed its name to Rockwell International.

Apollo 11 CSM in Orbit Over Moon

Apollo 11 CSM in orbit over moon as seen from lunar lander. Image courtesy of NASA.

Apollo 11 Astronaut on Moon, 1969

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin on moon, 1969. Image courtesy of NASA.

Although the last of the nine Apollo missions to the moon was in 1972, North American’s Apollo CSMs continued to be used in another four NASA missions through 1975. Apollo ferried astronauts to the International Space Station and for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. In the end, Apollo CSM development and manufacture cost the U.S. Government $3.7 billion ($28.6 billion in 2019 dollars). This was not, however, the end of the Downey plant’s space operations. In 1972, North American Rockwell won the contract to design and build the Space Shuttle orbiter. Most of the development and some component manufacturing occurred at the Downey plant, but final assembly of the six orbiters built occurred at Rockwell’s plant in Palmdale.

Space Shuttle Endeavor in Los Angeles

Space Shuttle Endeavor on display at the California Science Museum in Exposition Park. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

By the 1990s, with a significant slowdown in defense and space spending, the Downey aerospace plant saw significant cutbacks. Rockwell International reduced its labor force there to less than 5,000. In 1996, Boeing purchased most of Rockwell’s defense and space operations and, by 1999, after 70 years of aerospace manufacturing, shuttered the 160-acre Downey plant for good. The property was purchased by the City of Downey and, from 1998 through 2011, became the location for Downey Studios, a large motion picture facility where films such as Spider-Man, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Terminator 3, Catch Me If You Can, and many more were filmed. The site also became the location of a Kaiser Permanente hospital, city recreation fields, and two shopping centers, Downey Landing and Downey Promenade. It is also the location of the Columbia Memorial Space Center, a small science and aerospace museum.

Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey

Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey with boilerplate in background. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

An excellent collection of information and images about the Downey Plant, the Apollo program, and North American Aviation may be found at the Aerospace Legacy Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Downey, dedicated to preserving Southern California's aerospace history.

Also see: Moonwakers and Los Angeles County

L.A. Video

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