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Downey space museum is struggling to survive

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Bob Thompson fondly remembers when Downey was buzzing with pride and payrolls as a major hub for work on the Apollo space program and the construction site for six space shuttles.

"Since the beginning of time, we had all these world leaders who looked up at the moon," said Thompson, a 72-year-old local history buff who worked for 34 years on the site where the spacecraft were built. "Here in Downey we built the vehicles that put the first man on the moon, and that is why it's a great source of pride."

City officials doled out $8 million in municipal funds to open the Columbia Memorial Space Center in 2009. The sleek, futuristic-looking building, packed with relics from the nation's space program, was built as a museum, hands-on learning center and a national memorial to the seven astronauts who perished in a 2003 fiery breakup of the space shuttle Columbia as it reentered Earth's atmosphere.

The space center sits on part of the once-sprawling 177-acre manufacturing site.

Engineers and technicians in Downey built the command module that enabled Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to become the first people to walk on the moon in 1969. In 1972, the site received the contract that became synonymous with the city itself when it began work on the space shuttle.

But as memories of the Apollo and shuttle programs fade, the space center is struggling to attract visitors and donors. Now, city officials are looking for new ways to fund the struggling institution. Its deficit of more than $500,000 — an improvement over past years — is coming out of city funds.

"Our city government is not in the business of running museums," said Fernando Vasquez, mayor of the city in southeast Los Angeles County. The City Council has "been committed to supporting this museum, but at some point, we need to see a plan that's sustainable."

The suburban city of 111,000 — which has a hotel called the Shuttle Inn, a park named after the Apollo program and a street named Columbia — is struggling to maintain a showcase for its seven decades of aerospace work.

Downey's association with the aerospace industry began in 1929, when a plot of land for growing citrus in south Downey was converted to an aircraft manufacturing plant.

As it changed hands over the years, the site would be used to build fighter planes for World War II, develop the Navaho missile project and, finally, become the "cradle of the cosmic age" when North American Aviation, which evolved into Rockwell International, won the contracts for the Apollo and space shuttle programs.

Today, the aerospace complex at the intersection of Lakewood Boulevard and Alameda Street has been replaced by the sprawling Downey Landing shopping center, the Apollo park, a Kaiser Permanente hospital and the gleaming Columbia Memorial Space Center.

Less than a mile from the 105 Freeway and near the site of the former Downey Studios, the museum had about 30,000 visitors last year. Schoolchildren who are drawn to hands-on exhibitions such as the space mission simulator and a recently renovated robotics lab are a steady source of visitors, with about 200 field trips from nearby schools last year.

City officials want to wean the museum off city money and find more sustainable funding sources. They have taken steps to address some of its lingering issues. Critics — including some in City Hall — say lack of leadership has contributed to the museum's problems.

City officials have started the search for a full-time executive director. The center has had an executive director for only eight months of its five-year history, and that was in the beginning. The rest of the time it's been run by a series of city employees who were only devoted to the museum part time.

Officials say an experienced executive director would know how to raise money, bring in popular exhibits and find creative ways to generate revenue, which the museum desperately needs.

"That's probably been part of the problem," City Councilman Alex Saab said. "We need someone whose role is strictly to look after the center."

Gerald Blackburn, who worked at the aerospace plant for 44 years and has been involved with the museum since its conception, said the center has fallen in priority amid the city's budget cutbacks. He understands financial difficulties but thinks the preservation of the city's history should be funded.

"The Columbia Memorial Space Center has a tremendous potential to become a community heritage and legacy, but it is not going to happen until commitment, leadership and vision are in place to make it happen," Blackburn said.

The Downey space center may already have a big-ticket draw at its disposal: Inspiration.

Inspiration is a full-scale space shuttle mock-up — largely made of wood and plastic — that Rockwell built in 1972 to show what it would look like before the program was approved.

In recent decades, the 122-by-78-foot model remained hidden away at the former manufacturing site. The mock-up is on display a few hundred feet from the museum but will soon be moved into storage again because of a lack of funds.

In 2012, the city estimated it would cost $2 million to properly exhibit the mock shuttle, more than 21/2 times the entire budget for the museum in 2013.

City officials see the development of a shopping center next to the museum as part of the solution to its problems.

When the Promenade at Downey mall — with displays on the city's aerospace history — is completed early next year, they hope it also will draw thousands of shoppers to the museum.

"The people who worked there dreamed of going to the stars and took us to the moon," Blackburn said. "How could you not see the importance of that?"

james.barragan@latimes.com

Twitter: @jamesbarragan

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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