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".

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