Goodbye, Space Shuttle: My Best Trespassing Stories All Involve You

Rocketdyne Archives_J2Test

I’d like my ashes scattered over the contaminated hills beneath Rocketdyne. It’s both where I grew up and where I learned to love the bomb.

Photos courtesy of Rocketdyne Archives

In the San Fernando Valley of the 1970’s, neither the bustling aerospace industry, the Cold War, or anything related to rocket engines could be avoided.

The fathers of my friends and schoolmates were either in aerodynamics or Hollywood, and the Hughes Missile Group, North American Aviation’s Atomics International, Raytheon Missile Systems, and SSFL Rocketdyne seemed to all have fence lines circling our neighborhoods.

Miles and miles of chain-link, bearing too many “No Trespassing” signs to count, guided our walks home from school and hikes though the hills. Essentially, we grew up in the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, 2558 rocky acres of testing ground, 451 of which are government owned.

Convoys of unmarked military cars, vans, and sometimes NASA tractor-trailers would rumble through our neighborhoods, instigating one conspiracy theory after the next and providing dozens of ideas for adventures we might have on the properties themselves. We weren’t afraid of getting caught ‘cause we figured, “Caught at what, throwing rocks at that giant metal thing?” Little did we know.

Rocketdyne Archives_Delta Test AreaSpielberg movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. perfectly captured the way we saw frazzled but dutiful engineer nerd-men, gate guards, laboratory workers, Army guys, and men in suits wearing mirrored sunglasses.

They spoke indirectly, had shifty eyes, and were clearly hiding superhuman mutants and radioactive bionic assassins, maybe even UFOs. They needed to be dealt with head on, and the only way to do that was to hop the fences and throw our rocks at the giant metal things.

We lived to “hike” among the sandstone formations of the Hughes Missile Systems site, which locals called “the Bunker” and where nuclear missile research took place around the clock.

Rocketdyne, where all sorts of payload and heavy-lift rocket engines were tested (including the liquid-fuel biggies known as SSMEs, or Space Shuttle Main Engines), became known as “Meltdown Mountain” once the 1979 story broke about its “worst in history” Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) accident 20 years prior. Also found throughout those hills, though we’ll probably never know as much about them as we otherwise might have, are the Chumash Indian caves of the area’s native inhabitants.

When NASA’s Space Shuttle program was in full swing (years before the first Shuttle launch), you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting those favorite villains of ours, laboratory personnel and field-test employees. It was impossible to go to the supermarket without seeing the men and women of the Apollo program, the Shuttle program, and sites that developed Thor rockets, Saturn rockets, Delta 2000s, Atlas rockets, and the Jupiter rockets that put chimps into orbit. Even some of our teachers were rocket groupies.

The best field trip I ever took was a class expedition up Woolsey Canyon, where the bus stopped just short of Rocketdyne’s gate (think NORAD). Absurdly, we 30 or so 4th and 5th graders were directed out of the bus and onto the shoulder of the road. Our chaperones were giddy with excitement and wanted us to hurry. We were told to settle down and find rocks to sit on, but most of the girls at least stayed close to the curb to avoid the steep drop into snake-infested brush below.

“Keep and eye on the tower,” our teachers kept saying, and we did. Of course, we did! Massive nighttime fireballs and smoke the devil couldn’t darken frequently shot up from that mountain, and here we were, as far as civilians could go. Workers – likely the boyfriends and gear-head brothers of our tipped-off guardians – waved as they drove through the gate, yelling, “Cover those ears!” and “Only twelve more minutes!”

I remember some kids initially not wanting to go on that trip; descriptions of what exactly we’d be doing were vague in a way only schools in the ‘70s could be. When they told us part of Star Wars had been filmed there, though, not a single kid missed that bus.

It was an extraordinary time in an extraordinary place, akin only to Mission Control in Huston and the Kennedy Space Center in Orlando. Notwithstanding the secrecy and allusions to war and nuclear dread that came with Rocketdyne, those boosters they built were taking us to Mars. And the men in those trucks were our fathers, our friends, and our neighbors – a vibe that made it a field trip for the ages. Again, such an insanely liability-incurring excursion could only have occurred before Americans turned as litigious and finger pointy as they are today, before parents morphed into uppity, self-congratulating micromanagers.

Today’s Brave New World of lawsuit-happy informants actually makes me miss the Red Scare, though to be fair someone should probably have given a thought to what we might’ve been exposed to up there, since the incidence of disease being linked to contamination from Rocketdyne is off the charts (think Love Canal x10).

Think we cared? Bolted to the bottom of the largest of eight test stands on that mountain was what would become the world’s first reusable rocket engine.

A forerunner to the SSME and at the time the most powerful liquid oxygen/hydrogen booster in existence, the thing was capable of producing 400,000 pounds of thrust at sea level. Maybe our teachers were nuts (or drunk), but everyone in the Valley looked forward to stuff like this.

When the engine went off we were closer than any Launch-watcher or VIP would ever get at the Kennedy Space Center. The blast burned for 320 seconds; the flame was like the sun if the sun could spread-eagle.

For us on that trip and during aerospace’s hey-day, it was Southern California that was extraordinary. Chatsworth, Canoga Park, West Hills, and Simi Valley all enjoyed a special place in the industry, and these will surely be some of the nation’s communities that will miss the Shuttle most.

As for those trespassing stories? Hmm…maybe once I stop going up there…

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2 Responses to “Goodbye, Space Shuttle: My Best Trespassing Stories All Involve You”

  1. Arianne says:

    Hi,
    My grandfather (Bill Cecka) was manager of test operations at SSFL from 1963-68. He worked there beginning in about 1958(?) and I always enjoy reading anecdotes and articles about that time in history. Thanks for posting!

    • J. Nelson says:

      Well, that’s certainly nice of you to say, thanks. Here’s to Bill. (He must’ve been there for the partial reactor meltdown, yikes!)

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