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SOUTH BAY / COVER STORY : Mission to the Moon : They Shot the Moon, and Made It

July 14, 1994|TED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Around the clock, workers in white smocks scrambled to assemble the world's most advanced technology in Rockwell International's Building 290. Newsmen, scientists and astronauts visited, seemingly watching their every move. The floor of the hangar-like facility was littered with half-built spacecraft.

In the 1960s, during the days of the Apollo space missions, this building in Downey was known as Tepee Village, nicknamed for the capsule-like shapes of the command and service modules that were readied there for shipment to Cape Canaveral.

It was here, 25 years ago, that a work force assembled a spacecraft that took men to the heavens and returned them safely home to Earth.

The mission enlisted workers from all over the Southland: In Redondo Beach, they designed and built the engines that landed men on the moon. In Seal Beach, they erected part of the rocket that blasted those three astronauts into space. In El Segundo, they created the docking ports that linked spacecraft modules together during a celestial rendezvous.

The Apollo program, which let men walk, drive and hit golf balls on the moon, is over. But for many of those who worked at area aerospace firms to design and build much of the equipment to get there, the mission is the highlight of their careers, even if they were far from the spotlight.

Many have retired. Others were laid off not long after the moon landing. Some are now top executives or have started their own companies. But most agree that nothing was quite like working on the lunar landings.

"The objective was very clear: Man. Moon. 1970," said former Apollo astronaut David Scott, 62, who walked on the moon in 1971 and now lives in Manhattan Beach. "Everyone understood exactly what the objective was."

Many thought that, by now, NASA would be embarking on a manned exploration of Mars or building a lunar base. But even a scaled-back space station has had trouble getting funding from Congress.

Today, Building 290 in Downey, where the lunar modules were assembled, is silent. Offices are darkened and shuttered, with little activity except for space shuttle upgrade work.

The Apollo program "built to a crescendo, then kind of died away," said Westchester resident John Gibb, 75, who headed the development of the propulsion system in the spacecraft. "They had the climax, and then it was all over. It doesn't seem to amount to much anymore."

And many of the spacecraft engineers who worked on Apollo have gone on to other work--or are out of work.

"I see them in my classes," said Shirley Thomas, a USC professor who has helped aerospace engineers retrain as environmental engineers. "Bright men, a third of them with Ph.Ds, are just bleeding.

They've sold the first car, they've sold the second car, they've sold the home, and they can't find work."

Many former workers, plus retirees such as Palos Verdes Estates resident Rocco A. Petrone, 68, long for the days when space exploration was a national goal.

"After 25 years, I'm still enthused," said Petrone, then-director of launch operations at Kennedy Space Center and later the president of Rockwell's space division. "I wish the nation was."

Those on the Apollo projects often worked more than 60 hours a week, getting little sleep. Many saw their families break apart, and some developed health problems because of the demanding work. Even on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong took that first step on the moon, employees at Rockwell continued working, peering at black-and-white TV sets during breaks.

Some thrived on the pace.

"They were really unbelievable times," said Beverly Gresham, a Rockwell secretary in customer relations who has been with the company since 1958. "(If) you talk to the people who are retiring, they will say it was the most fun they have ever had."

In those days, billions of dollars poured into the space programs. And for young engineers with brand-new degrees, it meant opportunities. Robert Sackheim was still taking college courses when he went to work for TRW Inc., which was designing the engine that lowered Armstrong's lunar module from the hovering spacecraft to the moon.

As a development engineer, he split his time between the headquarters in Redondo Beach and a testing facility in San Juan Capistrano. He remembers all-nighters, with some people taking catnaps in their chairs.

"It was a lot of just grinding out the details," said Sackheim, now the manager of TRW's Propulsion and Combustion Center. "We were doing a lot of mundane details. But, overall, it was a real technical challenge, not a minor feat. The lunar module had to land safely, and that was very important."

*

Even when the work was not thrilling, former workers say, working on the program was. At Cosmodyne in Torrance, workers had previously perfected cryogenic systems, which were put to the test in cooling lunar module components. "Technically, it was not very challenging," said President Russ Brown. "(But) the mission itself excited the imagination. You could not help but feel it."

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