Shuttle Blasts Off New Year's Day--From Downey's Rose Parade Float

Times Staff Writer

In case NASA hasn't gotten the word, the space shuttle will blast off next on New Year's Day, in a spectacle to be witnessed by thousands of jubilant onlookers and a television audience of 125 million.

The craft will roar through white clouds and carry a satellite payload with six, possibly seven, passengers along for the ride. Among them will be Miss Downey and Miss Guadalajara.

But this shuttle won't rise from a Cape Canaveral launching pad for the usual 68-mile journey into space. Instead, it will travel only four-and-a-half feet, up a cantilever angled atop the City of Downey's float in the 1987 Tournament of Roses.

Although the float will bear the optimistic title "Wings of a Dream," officials concede that it could nevertheless end up a nightmare. Until parade day, they won't know whether it will stir the hearts or boil the blood in those who are reminded of the Jan. 28 Challenger disaster, which took the lives of seven astronauts in an explosion also vividly captured on national TV.

"My first initial thought was if we do put it on the street," chief float builder Jim Wright agreed last week, "one of two things is gonna happen: People are either gonna stand up and applaud and cry, or they're gonna throw eggs at me."

But that is a chance the Downey Rose Float Assn. had to take, Wright said, because there was too little time to come up with another entry. And who could have foreseen any risk in featuring the most famous product ever produced in Downey, for 38 years a home to Rockwell International, the real space shuttle builders?

"Our meeting to decide what we were going to build came three days before the shuttle accident," said Wright, a middle-aged metalworker who moved here two years ago. "Then we were kind of in a holding pattern because we had to discuss that with (parade officials in) Pasadena . . . you know, whether they even wanted us to think of doing this."

Association president Cel Kimberly said she followed up with a letter to assure parade officials "that we didn't just jump on a tragedy."

And they quickly agreed, according to Jack Tallon, chairman of the float entries committee.

"We looked at it, we thought that it was bigger than any one incident," Tallon said. "We thought it represented the whole space program . . . Our reaction was much like everyone else's," that even in light of the world's worst space accident, the Downey float--like the American space program itself--"should go on."

"I think it will go over fine," Tallon predicted. "I'm sure that it will conjure up in everybody's mind some sorrow, that sort of thing." But he expects those emotions to be outweighed by feelings of pride.

While some city governments hire professional float builders to construct entries worth more than $100,000, Downey relies on its private, nonprofit association, which this year has a comparatively meager budget of roughly $30,000, not a penny of which comes from public funds. So, five nights a week, from 7:30 to midnight, Wright and a handful of other volunteers continue working on the float in a warehouse a few miles west of the Rockwell plant.

"You go home with a few holes in your fingers if you're not careful," said Bob Takesky, as he and co-worker Bob Toerge sat monotonously stitching a skin of aluminum screen over the steel frame of one shuttle wing.

But with patience comes a payoff, Takesky added: "It makes you feel pretty good when you see something you helped build going down that parade route." The same way NASA technicians must feel when "the whole thing starts taking off from the tower and they start yelling, 'Go baby, go, go' . . . That's what we are."

With his eyes gleaming like a proud parent, Wright described his shuttle float during a pause in the construction one night last week.

"The sequence is we're gonna have lift-off sound on tape, plus CO2 for the two upper burners," Wright began. And as the one-fifth scale model slowly tracks forward, powered by hydraulics, its cargo arm will pivot the satellite high into the air, allowing it to unfold and revolve. The float will depict the shuttle breaking through the clouds after launch, without the solid rocket boosters that failed in the Challenger disaster.

"It also will emit a Morse Code which will give out 'The City of Downey California Wishes You A Happy New Year'," Wright said.

The latter feature is the kind of quaint touch that audiences love, calculated to steal a few extra seconds of network camera time and gain points in the judging for the coveted Founder's Day trophy. In 30 years of competing in a category that now has only six entrants--those that are self-built and self-decorated--Downey has won the honor but twice. "Not a very good record," Wright said.

As the Downey shuttle travels along its five-and-a-half mile parade path, two drivers will guide it from the inside while at least six women will stand waving on the outside. Along with Miss Downey and her four-member court, Miss Guadalajara will represent the city's South of the Border sister. There may be a seventh passenger, some sort of mystery guest, Kimberly said. And from the float's cloud-covered base to the shuttle's 18-foot high nose, it will be clothed in more than $10,000 worth of white roses and other flowers.

Wright admits that on one point the Downey group may profit financially from the shuttle controversy. In the months since the Challenger went down, Americans have shown an increased interest in space craft memorabilia. "Pins, models, everything is being bought up like it's going out of style," he said. "So we hope that that atmosphere will be beneficial for us because our (Rose Parade) pin for the year, our lapel pins, have the shuttle on them."

For years a tradition as well as a modest fund-raiser for the Downey group, pins sales to parade goers and the public at large have been a popular way of commemorating the city's Rose participation. The pins will sell for $5 each.

If anyone indeed finds the float to be in bad taste on parade day, they aren't likely to hail from Downey. With the Rockwell plant supporting nearly 6,000 employees, said float publicity chairman Doris Patterson, "there are very few people you meet in Downey that don't have a relative or someone who works there."

"I think public opinion will be on our side," Patterson speculated. "The public wants the space program to continue, and it's very critical to Downey."

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