the Space Race

Splashdown testing at the Downey site

Splashdown testing at the Downey site

In 1961, in an attempt to rally enthusiasm for space exploration as a national priority, President John F. Kennedy issued a proclamation calling for a new effort aimed at “placing a man on the moon and returning him before the decade is out.”

To accomplish this goal, NASA put out a two bids for space program contracts. The first was for the Saturn S-11, the second stage of the Saturn V Launch Vehicle designed to send multi-ton payloads into space. The second was for the Project Apollo Spacecraft Development Program, comprising the command module and service module. North American won both awards, and in so doing, made Downey the industrial center for America’s lunar space program.

To support the Apollo program, NASA established the Resident Apollo Spacecraft Office (RASPO) at the Downey plant. During the peak of the Apollo program, the number of resident government and support contract personnel (including astronauts) was over 300.

Employment at the Downey site grew rapidly, as well. At its peak in the mid 1960s, the NASA Industrial Plant, Downey (as it was officially renamed in 1964) supported more than 35,000 workers.

Apollo 11 Space Capsule returns to Downey after its flight to the Moon in 1969

Apollo 11 Space Capsule returns to Downey after its flight to the Moon in 1969

Along with the growth of the work force came an addition of millions of square feet of offices, factories, work spaces and test facilities. Facilities at the Downey plant included the largest clean room in the world, a Mission Control Room identical to the one in Houston, the Apollo Impact Test Facility (the land and pool drop tower area used to test the integrity of the Apollo capsule), and a Rotational Test Facility (also known as the “vomit comet”).

In 1967 North American merged with Rockwell Standard Corporation, to become North American Rockwell Corporation.

In their contributions to the design, production, and testing of the Apollo command service modules, the men and women who worked at the Downey NASA plant were part of one of the most successful programs of the U.S. space program. The Downey plant built 17 of these modules, six of which were used in unmanned test flights and the other eleven manned. President Kennedy’s challenge to place a human being on the moon by the end of the decade became a reality when the lunar module crew of Apollo 11, carrying astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins, landed on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969.