California Aerospace Site to Memorialize Columbia Space Shuttle's Crew Killed in 2003
NASA's Columbia orbiter launches skyward on April 12, 1981 on NASA's first-ever shuttle flight, STS-1. Commanding the 54-hour mission was astronaut veteran John Young with then-rookie flyer Robert Crippen as pilot.
Credit: NASA.

DOWNEY, California (AP) - This blue-collar California city is reclaiming its aerospace past by converting part of a complex into a memorial and the first education center dedicated to the 2003 Columbia disaster that killed seven astronauts.

A ceremonial groundbreaking for the Columbia Memorial Space Science & Learning Center was scheduled Thursday.

The Columbia families say it is appropriate because the astronauts spent 16 days in orbit conducting science experiments. Shuttle flights since have focused on finishing construction of the international space station.

"This crew, in particular, has always been an ardent supporter of education. A science center would certainly be a fitting tribute to their legacy,'' said Dr. Jon Clark, an ex-NASA flight surgeon and widower of astronaut Laurel Blair Salton Clark.

The 160-acre (65-hectare) complex 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of downtown Los Angeles, opened in 1929 and was primarily involved in aircraft manufacturing and missile design. During the space race, it played a key role in development of the Apollo program and later, the space shuttle fleet.

The site for the $12 million (euro8.9 million) center, paid for by NASA and the city, was chosen by a Congressional resolution in 2004. It is expected to open in summer 2008.

Design plans reveal a futuristic-looking, two-story building nestled in a 13-acre (5.3-hectare) park on the former site that has since been redeveloped into a shopping center, movie studio and medical complex. The facade will be made of steel, glass and aluminum to invoke the feeling of openness.

"The goal is to give the impression of space and the space shuttle,'' said Alex Guerrero, executive vice president of Tower General Contractors, which is building the science center.

Interactive exhibits are planned including a simulated space mission and a Mars robotic lab.

Columbia broke apart during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003, raining debris over Texas and Louisiana. Investigators determined its left wing was gashed by fuel-tank foam insulation during liftoff, allowing fiery gases to penetrate the shuttle.

  • STS-107 Columbia Disaster