Tuesday, January 28, 2014


This video I recorded in one take, just my memory of the loss of Challenger.

Bittersweet & Beloved Mementos - Challenger Plus 28

Today is January 28, 2014. It is a Tuesday. It is the 28th anniversary of the loss of space shuttle Challenger and its crew. 
That was also a Tuesday.
The events of that day are still entrenched firmly in my mind. The image of that distant disaster, unfolding real time before my very eyes, will forever be etched into my memory. 
As I write this, at 12:30pm, I can almost tell you for certain what I was doing. Aside from crying, which I did a lot that day, I was watching CBS News. There reached a point where Dan Rather's voice simply ceased to exist. The video around this time now showed an Air Force C-130, distant, hazy, heading towards the area where the debris had fallen a short time before. Aside from WJCT, Jacksonville's local PBS station, all the networks were now covering the disaster.
A short time later, I simply turned the television off, and laid across the bed. My eyes stung from the amount of tears that I had cried. 
That was when another feeling started to grip me.
When I was very young, I was blithely ignorant of other's perceptions or feelings about space exploration. By the time I entered fifth grade, I started to get a sense that it wasn't as popular as I thought. Much of this was simply childish behavior. I didn't fit in, and the other children, typically, seized upon the one aspect of my personality they knew would hurt me, and that was my love of space. So, I changed hobbies for a while, going to model railroading. 
I was still teased.
And I still loved space. 
When I entered junior high, the teasing got worse, but I dug my heels in, for a time, before finally acquiescing somewhat. It was other events that finally caused me to make an attempt to "fit in". Still, I loved space. 
Once I figured out it was just people being immature, I decided to embrace my love affair with space exploration again, openly. I figured that, as adults, many of these people, my age and otherwise, surely must see how important space exploration was. Instead, I encountered pretty much the same ambivalence, now backed by solid reasoning and posturing. 
With the loss of Challenger, I feared that those who thought space a waste of money would feel themselves vindicated, and they would simply shut it all down. And no amount of reasoning would shift their minds.
As the day progressed, I decided it was urgent that my wife and I go out and get what space related material we could, not just because I knew that the market minded would do the same, but that it might get relegated to oblivion. We drove to the nearby Albertson's, and took a look on the shelves in the toy section. I already knew what they had, but there was now a new found sense of urgency. Already, they were being picked over, and some of those items I sought had vanished; a Revell 1/144 Shuttle orbiter kit, some Young Astronaut related toys. What remained was an ERTL diecast shuttle orbiter and a much smaller complete shuttle stack, as well as a Monogram Young Astronaut Snap-Tite space shuttle. We bought all three.
And with that, there were no shuttle items left on the shelves.
I fell in love with the larger ERTL diecast shuttle. It was heavy, 1/200 scale, had retractable landing gear, working payload doors, and a strange looking payload of sorts. The smaller shuttle was around 1/480-500, had something like a launch pad for its stand, and could separate into its main components. I'd had the Monogram Snap-Tite shuttle before. It was never opened. The two diecast models ended up sitting in a place of honor on my bookshelf. 
As the weeks dragged on, and the investigation into the loss of the Challenger progressed, we would grab every newspaper we could, every magazine, if it had a story about the investigation. In time, I had a huge scrapbook of clippings. We didn't have a VCR (we were rather poor), so if there was anything on the evening news, I would jot it down. 
In time, it was apparent that the nation was not turning its back on the program. President Reagan wanted to press on, though it was obvious that the shuttle program was going to be greatly scaled back. By the time that the shuttle program returned to flight, two years, eight months and one day later, it looked like we would continue our push into the heavens. By this time, I had a couple of other model space shuttles, including an Estes flying kit. I gave the Monogram Young Astronaut kit to a co-worker's son, it having never been opened (in the interim, I had built two more Monogram kits). 
I kept the scrap book until the 16th anniversary. At that time, I chose to donate it to the South Florida Science Museum, where I worked. That felt more important than for me to hold on to it.
That was on January 28th, 2002. 
I still have the two ERTL models. The larger orbiter has chipped paint, and its payload has long since vanished. The little shuttle stack's external tank has yellowed on one side, and the plastic has become rather brittle, the pins that hold the rocket boosters splaying, with one having broken, as well as the forward pin for the orbiter. I still value both, problems and all. Like the binoculars I took with me that cold morning so long ago, they remind me of the sacrifice that was made. This is still a very new arena of exploration, and one that is fraught with risks.
Sadly, there would be more loss. When I gave away that scrapbook, who would have suspected that a year and three days later, we'd mourn once again.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Big Space Advocate

Today is the 27th of January.
The next few days, from today through February 1st, tend to be hard ones for me. I could barely remember the loss of Apollo 1.
I witnessed the loss of Challenger.
The loss of Columbia I saw minutes after it happened.
The second of those losses is the one that sticks with me, of course. 
When this time of the year rolls around, so early in the year, I become morose. It is really a mixture of feelings, to be honest. Regardless, it reminds me that this is still a very new frontier, one that is harsh and extremely unforgiving. At this point in the quest for space, things are very precarious. 
I worry about the fate of space exploration, but not that it won't happen. China has become the latest spacefaring nation to launch human missions. They put not just a lander on the Moon for their first robotic mission to its surface, but a rover. The Russians are still a spacefaring power to be reckoned with, especially in light of recent pronouncements from Moscow reinforcing their own programs. India's space program is starting to pick up, and South Korea successfully launched an orbital mission from their shore. Then there is the European Space Agency, and its goals. 
My concern is that the United States is turning its back on space.
I am not referring to the commercial launch industry. I'm referring to NASA.
That was why I was really pleased to read an excerpt from Neil deGrasse Tyson's book "Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier".
While this book is a few years old, it is still as relevant as ever. I've seen Dr. Tyson in person, and have seen him on many programs, and one thing is certain; he is a tireless advocate of spaceflight. Like the late Carl Sagan, he advocates for science education in a very eloquent manner. It is his push for getting us Americans more interested in space that most encourages me. He is a big man, with a big voice. 
Which is probably what we need. Space is a big place, and we've only just begun.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Space Shuttle "Generic" - Introducing Revell's 1/250 Scale Snap-Tite Orbiter

My friend Emily was gifted around the holidays with what I took to be yet another iteration of the classic Monogram 1/200 Snap-Tite Space Shuttle. When I saw the package that her model came in, I naturally assumed it was the same model in yet another version of the classic kit.
When I saw a picture of her holding it, though, something immediately struck me as odd. It looked smaller. I did a little investigating, and discovered that Revell, the current owner of the dies, had created a smaller version of the venerable model. They chose 1/250 for this new kit. There really aren't a lot of space models in this scale (unless you consider the Dr. Zooch flying "ant scale" Saturn V,  which is the same size as the old Estes' kit, around 1/242 scale). 
After giving it some consideration, I decided to do the only sensible thing. 
I bought one.

Right away, you notice the packaging. I never let this type of packaging dissuade me. Normally, it is associated with toys or overpriced electronics. Once upon a time, though, companies like Airfix and Frog sold many of their plastic kits in a similar manner. 
The nice thing about this packaging is that it allows you to see what you are getting into before committing. It also allows for comparison. Here it is with my original Monogram 1/200 shuttle Enterprise (still under construction).

Let's open it up.

All the parts in the tray...
...and out.
The paint job is good, but not great. There are a few things that need to be corrected from the accuracy standpoint. Most noticeable are the markings on the wings. The NASA "meatball" on the left wing is oversized, as is the American flag on the right. The NASA "worm" logo on the rear of the cargo bay doors is oversized as well. Amazingly, the markings on the fuselage are about the right size. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to fix those errors, as no one makes similar markings the right size or scale.
The marking for the cockpit windows is a little too squished. Not too much, but enough to be noticeable. The gray graphite on the leading edges of the wings is represented, but not the upper section, which are done in black.
This shuttle has no name as well. I refer to mine as Space Shuttle "Generic".
If only NASA had made that many.
When you compare this model to the current Revell version of the Monogram 1/200 shuttle, you can certainly see its heritage.

Most of its parts are just scaled down versions of the older kit.
Building it was a breeze. Assembly time - five minutes.
A few notes. First, when you attach the OMS pods (parts number 11 and 12, for those taking notes) should be attached at step 2. I recommend that from experience with the larger kit, as it will make it far easier to attach the rear of the orbiter (which actually serves as a lock to keep the model together). The landing gear (something lacking from the new 1/200 version, as well as the two little astronauts) are a bit tricky. You want plenty of light. Since these parts are molded in black, and are going into landing gear bays that are painted black and furthermore are molded into a black underside, it can be a little daunting. Also, be careful with the cargo bay doors, as this plastic feels a bit brittle, and those pins are small.
I was disappointed to see that they chose not to include the ESA SpaceLab as an optional payload, even if the one from the original 1/200 scale model is not accurate. They did include the other payload, which they now call a "data exchange system", with a "modulator satellite" on the Canadarm. I doubt that is what Monogram called them (I've checked the original instructions; nothing). 
The finished model looks cute.

Finished model

As a space educator, I see plenty of potential for "make and takes" here. Even science teachers might find this model useful. The serious model builder inside of me, however, is a little let down, but sees possibilities here. 
Still, I recommend this model. It makes a nice little introduction to space modeling, and even has educational potential. 
This first one of mine is going to remain untouched. The same cannot be said if there is a next one.

Shuttle mockup "Inspiration", the only Monogram/Revell 1/200
orbiter in my collection that is complete at this time, faces its
smaller scale descendant.  You can see the "Enterprise" and a TBD
orbiter in the background, both Monogram/Revell kits.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

For Want of a Mission - The Space Launch System; STS Revisited, With All The Same Worries

As I mentioned in my last entry ("Dreaming of the Final Frontier"), there were concerns about what the space shuttle would do when it was being developed. As initially conceived, the shuttle was to support other missions, provided, of course, that those other missions were funded. As it turned out, NASA was given kind of a devil's deal; you can have a space station, extended lunar missions, or the shuttle, but not all of them, in fact, only one. The initial push for the shuttle during the Nixon years indicated that there was a firm belief that it could be used as a "means", basically building the road so that you could not only travel down it, but build alongside. Everything else would follow.
That's not exactly how it happened, of course.
After the summer of 1975's space settlement studies, it was increasingly apparent that while the shuttle had the capability, the planned missions were a far cry from what had been imagined.
One thing that did emerge from the space settlement studies were shuttle derived launch vehicles, or shuttle derived vehicles, SDV, for short. These were to be used for the really heavy lifting that would be necessary for space settlement to take place. 
If you look at these images, you can see a seed being planted, one that has persisted to this day. The Space Transportation System had the potential for a lot of growth.

The shuttle compared to proposed SDV's.
From "Space Settlements - A Design Study", NASA, 1976.
Other launch vehicles emerged from this study as well, namely the very large F-1 Flyback Booster. While not truly a shuttle derived vehicle, it was still impressive.

F-1 Flyback booster concept.
From "Space Settlements - A Design Study", NASA, 1976.
And as I mentioned in my previous entry, Congress, as well as an apathetic administration, killed any further studies. The SDV's, however, lived on.
By 1978, you find Morton Thiokol, the prime contractor for the SRB's, looking into large SDV's, capable of lobbing huge payloads into orbit. If you look at this design, you can see where this sort of thinking would eventually lead. 
SDV concept, 1978
Courtesy NASA/Morton Thiokol, via Wikipedia
The idea persisted because many at NASA considered the shuttle to be just one component of a growing space infrastructure. While optimistic,  this was somewhat unrealistic, given that NASA's budget had been steadily eroded for a decade by the late-1970's. Still, the studies continued. 
As the 1980's rolled along, with President Reagan's push for a space station, the SDV's began to resurface, with one design leading the pack.
That's C as in "cargo".
Final design for Shuttle-C
Courtesy NASA/MSFC
If you look at the comparison drawing up there, you can see the genesis of Shuttle-C. In theory, it was extremely simple; replace the orbiter with a self propelled cargo container. When you look at a space shuttle orbiter, you are in effect looking at a 240,000 lbs. (109,000 kg) payload. The shuttle was designed to handle around 64,000 lbs (29,000 kg) as payload (in practice, the "useful" load was 55,250 lbs, or 25,000 kg). If you took the orbiter off, used two or three space shuttle main engines (SSME's), you could, theoretically, create a launch vehicle that could lob a considerable amount. 
Most designs for the Shuttle-C called for it to lift just over 140,000 lbs. (63,500 kg) to LEO. That is more than twice the "useful" payload of the space shuttle. 
Unfortunately, the development costs for Space Station Freedom killed Shuttle-C, and by 1990, any serious work on the design ground to a halt, though the aerospace industry continued to play with the design, as did some at NASA.
Other independent design studies would come along. Robert Zubrin proposed a variant he called "Ares", which would use shuttle derived components for use in his "Mars Direct" proposals.
Zubrin's Ares, courtesy Wired/Mars Underground
When you look at Zubrin's proposal, it seems so very simple. Use SSME's mounted in a pod on the back of the external tank. Extended SRB's wouldn't be that difficult. The only real challenge was the upper payload shroud. 
Of course, dreams of launching a mission to Mars by 1999 never became more than just dreams, so Zubrin's Ares remained only a paper tiger, though an impressive one.
When President G.W. Bush proposed the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) in January, 2004, he proposed new craft and new missions; a return to the Moon, new launch vehicles, etc. Removing the lunar mission concept, the proposed CEV was really a lackluster replacement for the shuttle. The new launch vehicles that grew out of the VSE would also be named "Ares", but were only superficially similar to Zubrin's ideas. Still, they relied upon the STS as a starting point, even if the core in would be a fairly new design of slightly larger diameter.
Ares V and Ares I.
Courtesy NASA via Wikipedia
Only one Ares launch vehicle was ever tested, the Ares I-X flight on October 28, 2009 - 

As has been the case too often, when a new administration entered the picture, VSE was doomed, and with it the Ares boosters. There was plenty of criticism of the VSE, such as mandating a date for the shuttle stand down and withdrawal from the ISS, but this pattern of changing NASA plans was set several presidents back. However, politics, with all the assorted headaches, is not something I am going to venture too far into here. 
As the Obama administration killed VSE, it changed NASA's goals once more. No missions to the Moon for the immediate future. Development of commercial human spaceflight. Asteroid retrieval missions. A new spacecraft for exploration. Not surprisingly, that capsule would simply be the revamped Orion, initially designed for the VSE goals. 
The heavy lift boosters that came out of this administration's plans look familiar as well.
The various SLS configurations.
Courtesy NASA via Wikipedia
The currently unnamed SLS boosters are, once more, shuttle derived launchers. Everything here harkens back to those designs from the summer of 1975. The diameter of the core components is based upon external tank designs, the solid rocket boosters are simply stretched versions of the SRB that lobbed the shuttle into orbit. The engines are really no different, of course, choosing the proven RS-25 series, the SSME from the shuttle.
Bottom line; SLS is simply STS, Phase II. 
And sadly, looking at the track record, I fear that these designs are begging for missions that are not being funded properly or simply do not exist at this time as part of NASA's goals. Like the shuttle and STS before it, the SLS seems to be a powerful machine in want of a mission. The recently passed budget is smaller than needed. There are plenty of questions about the Orion MPCV, and its budget is shrunk as well. NASA's budget, and therefore its space mission scope, has never been smaller. We feared that the shuttle would never fly, and the budget NASA was working was paltry. While the current budget, adjusted for inflation, is comparatively better, NASA is not just developing one system, but in effect three (the Orion MPCV, the SLS, and helping to fund commercial crew vehicles). 
With the revelation of the most recent budget, and NASA's narrowed scope for human spaceflight, I worry that when 2016 rolls around, the next administration will continue the glorious old tradition of killing the previous one's space programs. And with its large price tag, SLS will be ripe for the picking.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Dreaming of "The Final Frontier"

On the evening of February 1st, 1978, I was a fifteen year old waiting for the PBS series "NOVA" to come on our local community television station, WJCT. I had a wonderful little GE Mini Cassette tape recorder that my mother had gotten me on Christmas in hand; I wanted to record this episode.
The opening sequence for "NOVA", as it was in the 1970's.
Image courtesy PBS & WGBH
The week before, the episode was "One Small Step", and it dealt with the events leading up to the  Apollo missions and our landings on the Moon. That episode was important to me, but not enough to warrant recording. When that episode ended, they previewed the coming episode, "The Final Frontier". This episode, to me, was the one that needed to be recorded.
We didn't have a VCR. The first generation units were out there, and more than my family could afford. The little audio recording was going to have to do. 
The NOVA episode "The Final Frontier" dealt with the future of our space program, concentrating on the space shuttle, space colonization, and where NASA was headed. For me, this was of far greater importance than going over the Apollo missions. So, with a C-90 tape loaded, I waited, and when the NOVA opening sequence began, I pressed down, fast and hard, on the RECORD and PLAY buttons, the needed combination to record.
For the next sixty minutes, I recorded, flipping the tape over after forty five of those had passed. I was otherwise glued to the television. The images they showed looked so hopeful, but already I had a feeling that there were forces at work that wanted dearly to put a drag on those activities, perhaps even stop them altogether.
In October of 1977, CBS' "60 Minutes" aired a piece about the work of Gerard K. O'Neill and his studies into space colonization. Not two weeks later, Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin. His response to the people at "60 Minutes" was terse - "it's the best argument yet for chopping NASA's funding to the bone .... I say not a penny for this nutty fantasy."
He led the charge to kill the funding. It was my stepfather who called me into the living room when they read the contents of his letter. It crushed me.
That was one of the reasons this episode was so crucial to me. One of the main themes of this episode was that the space shuttle was "a pickup truck", looking for a mission. The people working on the long term space colonization studies saw the work that they were doing as a way to give the shuttle something to do that was a bit more important. This was a frequent argument amongst critics of the shuttle program; it was a big, and increasingly expensive, vehicle, that seemed to have little in the way of purpose. 
I always thought that those people had small minds. Of course the shuttle had a greater purpose! It wasn't just going to be a pickup truck with an empty bed, hauling the occasional crew to LEO, maybe doing satellite repair as well as deploying them.
By February of 1978, though, NASA's budget was being strained. The ax had been falling steadily on the space agency's budget since before Apollo 11 even landed. NASA was forced to choose between the shuttle and other missions; they obviously chose the shuttle, as it would be a stepping stone, something to build from. When 1978 rolled around, some of those other missions were looking more and more remote. 
On that February night, however, it still looked imminent to that fifteen year old with the tape recorder. 
The adult me now wonders if it was the enthusiasm of the pro-space crowd that may have doomed our dreams, putting them off decades, perhaps a century. Many space colonization supporters showed up at these hearings dressed in "Star Trek" uniforms, and some were, perhaps, a bit too verbose. That may have been the spirit of the times, but one can't help but wonder what sort of message it sent to the officials who controlled the checkbook. That, sadly, is the way the world operates at times. 
Not quite eight years later, we would lose Challenger, and the first serious blow to the shuttle program, and American human spaceflight, was felt. Twenty five years later, to the day, we would lose Columbia, and the fate of the shuttle program was clearly spelled out. There was nothing ready to fill the void, and those dreams we had were now more distant than ever.
For a fifteen year old boy, huddled by his television on a cool, Florida night many years ago, the future looked so very different. I can tell you, for certain, that he is more than a little disappointed.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Soaring Into Space, On Wings of Polystyrene

Before the space shuttle concept was finalized, the model companies began planning their kits. This was typical of an industry that had been at the forefront of pushing "the final frontier" to the public. Even before the "space race" began in earnest, the model companies were there, selling their interpretations of what spaceships should look like. Plastic model companies like Strombecker, Lindberg and Revell were producing kits of winged spacecraft that looked logical. Model rocket companies such as Estes were producing winged spacecraft that went aloft like rockets and glided back to earth. The idea of spacecraft being nothing more than an evolution of aircraft seemed a natural one, a progression.
The first true manned spacecraft were disappointing to many, returning to Earth via parachute, so the idea of real winged spacecraft was exciting.
The idea of the shuttle was barely new when what was probably the first kit appeared. This was a flying model rocket by Centuri, which first saw the light of day in 1971. 

The original Centuri Space Shuttle, from 1971
Image courtesy Ninfinger.org

Many people like to point to the Aurora (and similar Airfix) model of the Pan American Space Clipper "Orion", from the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey", as the first realistic shuttle like spacecraft. Like those earlier concepts, though, it was rooted in fiction or ideas. The Centuri Space Shuttle kit of 1971 was based on the initial ideas proposed by NASA, and namely Max Faget. It was a "DC-3" derived design, and proved to be a popular kit.
The Centuri model borrowed heavily from this,
though using a modified version of a later booster design
Image courtesy NASA..

By the time the Centuri kit hit the market, though, it was becoming less clear that would be the approved design. During the summer of 1972, the final "stage and a half" design was selected, the proposal by North American Rockwell, and soon the shuttle's design would be set. 
In the meantime, the Centuri kit continued to sell, finally dropping from their catalog in 1981, the year  the real shuttle would finally fly.
There would be a few years before another company would produce a kit of the final design. There had been rumors of limited production models being made during that time, apparently very limited and somewhat exotic. One rumor I heard for a couple of years was that a Japanese company made a small fiberglass and resin model orbiter based upon the early North American design, the one that would lead to the actual orbiter. From what I remember of the story, the model would have been about 1/120 scale, around a 1 foot / 30 cm in length, and was basically devoid of detail. To this date, I have not been able to confirm the existence of this ethereal model. 
I can say with certainty, though, that the first real shuttle stack would become available in 1976, and like the Centuri kit, it, too, was a flyer. This was the Estes kit, which scaled out to be 1/162. Its first production run carried the early paint scheme that NASA and Rockwell showed not just in their publicity art, but even as far as including on an early set of drawings.

The Estes model was the first to show the final orbiter design, along with what was pretty close to the final ET and SRB design as well. I only saw one of the early kits built in 1976, and even then, that build wasn't very good (I would later see lovely models built from this kit).

Estes 1976 catalog cover.
Image courtesy Ninfinger.org
There were compromises with the Estes kit. It had out of scale wings, to allow better gliding flight. The SRB's had inserts that carried large fins to assist in boost phase. I'm sure that someone took this kit and produced a scale model out of it. I can find no evidence of that happening, however.
Which is fine, as the plastic model manufacturers were readying dies to release kits of their own.
In late 1977, the first wave of plastic space shuttle kits started appearing. First amongst these was Revell, which chose the practical scale of 1/144 for its first kits. Three kits appeared simultaneously; an orbiter alone, the orbiter and 747, and the complete stack. A short time later, Revell released a large 1/72 orbiter. The markings and paint scheme were for the Enterprise and Kitty Hawk on the earlier, smaller kits.
Monogram joined in the fray with a little 1/200 snap together orbiter Enterprise, which was released in early 1978.
A short time later, Entex released a kit of their own, which in some ways was superior, having better nose detail (though the nose profile is somewhat chunky). 
When you compared these kits, one thing really stood out. Entex had much better detail on the nose, even if it was somewhat misshapen. Only the later Airfix 1/144 would be better. Where did the two American companies go wrong?
It appears that the two American companies began tooling their models long before, possibly as early as 1975. One of the first set of drawing released of the final design was the following, dated June of 1974 - 

There are a lot of details that are not finalized in this drawing. Notable is the nose detail, and how the upper RCS (Reaction Control System) thrusters are beneath doors. Revell appears to have simply hedged their bets and left the nose fairly blank. There is one detail in this drawing that leads me to suspect that the Monogram Snap-Tite orbiter is actually from older tooling, and it is that diagonal seam that runs around the entire nose just ahead of the cockpit. This, and the very early design for the ESA "Space Lab" included in that kit lead me to suspect that this model was tooled first. 

Could this be from the oldest set of dies for a model shuttle?
The Entex and Airfix kits came next, and quite probably in that order. They seem to have based their kits upon this later drawing, from 1977 (and I suspect was actually made in late 1976) - 

There are still some details yet to appear, but that was pretty close to the final appearance of the space shuttle.
More plastic model shuttles would appear; Monogram would produce a 1/72 orbiter in 1979, and followed it a few years later with a huge 1/72 stack. Tamiya produced what is arguably the best shuttle orbiter period, in 1/100. Revell/Crown produced 1/288 kits. Hasegawa, and then Lindberg, produced 1/200 models. A small 1/400 Heller model would appear in the late 1990's and an unusual 1/400 stack that appeared in some science project kits showed up around 2005. More flying models would be made as well. Amazingly, most of the plastic kits are still in production; the Entex kit is now being produced by Minicraft, and the 1/288 kits went to Academy. Monogram and Revell merged in the 1980's, so their kits are still being turned out, though under the Revell moniker.
There are days when I can't help but wonder at how many of these I've built personally, and how they helped to inspire a generation of space dreamers.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Saving "Inspiration"

I fell in love with the space shuttle while it was still an embryo, a zygote, an idea only. The first mention of the space shuttle that I can remember was during one of the news broadcasts during an Apollo mission, and for some reason Apollo 15 keeps coming to mind. It was a NASA animation, showing the original Max Faget "DC-3" straight winged version. The description was so exciting. Unlike the capsules that had flown since 1961, this would be a real spaceship. 
I followed the program as best I could, well as best a child could. Little did I know that the final concept was decided in the summer of 1972. For me, that straight winged shuttle had to be the one that was coming. I did see different artwork surfacing, however, showing delta winged spacecraft. 
It was the November, 1974 issue of "Popular Science" that finally provided me a glimpse of the final design.
It wasn't straight winged.
An old Monogram 1/200 Snap-Tite shuttle
finished in prototype colors and markings.
Model by R. Little

It was a double delta. It was also no longer artwork. This was tangible, this was full size. 
This was going to happen.
I fell in love.
That shuttle mockup would never fly. In fact, it wasn't even complete. It was an engineering model of sorts, built at the Rockwell plant in Downey, California, between the contract being awarded on July 26th, 1972 and the spring of 1974. It was plywood and steel, had a removable tail, and no left wing.
None of those facts mattered.
This would be my first real shuttle until the Enterprise was rolled out in the summer of 1976.
As the program progressed, the Downey mockup would be updated along with the rest of the operational shuttles. It would be repainted to match them. It was no closer to space, but it looked the role.
Eventually, the one on the left would look like the one on the right.
(My Monogram and Lindberg 1/200 orbiters)

Then, as the shuttle program began to wind down, it was put aside. As the Downey plant closed down, the mockup sat, unused and almost forgotten.
The plant was sold for development, and the mockup was turned over to the city of Downey. The original plan was for the mockup to live inside the new development, a permanent reminder of what had once been done on this site. That plan fell through, and the developers actually paid the city of Downey over $150,000 to relocate the mockup. It was moved to the grounds of Columbia Memorial Space Science Learning Center, and placed under a giant tent in the summer of 2012.
It was also given a name - "Inspiration", a name selected from a contest.
The plans were pretty simple. It would take about $2 million to refurbish the mockup and provide it with a permanent home. 
This is where the story of the shuttle "Inspiration" becomes unclear.
In the Wikipedia article on "Inspiration", it mentions that on December 19, 2013, "Inspiration" would go into indefinite storage.
It had already sat for years. Conservators who examined the mockup announced that it needed work. It may have been made with skill and care, but years of neglect take their toll on plywood, steel and plastic. It needs work.
The money that was supposed to be coming never did. 
This saddens me immensely.
While this may have never been anything more than a big model, if you will, it is nonetheless an important one. It provided us with a look at what the shuttle would really look like, how big it truly was, and gave engineers something to work from. The name "Inspiration" is truly fitting.
Nothing would be sadder, then, than losing "Inspiration".