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A time when sky wasn't the limit

The Cold War aerospace industry and its lasting effects on the Southland are recalled at a two-day conference at the Huntington Library.

August 04, 2007|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

William Graham recalled with awe the 1957 flight of Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that prompted the United States to leap wholeheartedly into the space race. A Caltech student at the time, he went to a professor's lab to tune in Sputnik's signal.

"We could hear this whistle come across the sky from horizon to horizon. It was a very, very impressive experience. And many of us decided at that point, somehow or another, we were going to be involved in the space program," said Graham, who went on to become a science advisor to President Reagan and deputy NASA administrator.

Now retired, Graham spoke Friday at a conference on the history of the aerospace industry in Southern California and its effect on the region. The event was held at the Huntington Library in San Marino.

About 120 retired engineers, current Air Force officers, Cold War scholars and the just plain curious attended the start of the two-day gathering, titled "Rocket Science and Region: The Rise, Fall and Rise of the Aerospace Industry in Southern California."

The conference was organized by the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, a joint history think tank directed by USC professor William Deverell. One of the gathering's goals was to encourage more scholarship about "the significance and impact of the industry across the economy, the political arena and social and cultural life," Deverell said.

Panels are scheduled to continue today from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The event is open to the public for a $40 fee per person that includes lunch.

Graham moderated a panel featuring aerospace engineers and business leaders who rose to prominence during the Cold War and in some cases later presided over sharp employment cutbacks and difficult corporate mergers after its end.

Sherman N. Mullin, former president of Lockheed Skunk Works, the top-secret unit that designed innovative military aircraft such as the F-117 stealth fighter jet, attributed the industry's early growth here to good climate, open land, strong education systems and other "intangibles."

Despite plant closures elsewhere in Southern California over the last two decades, he said the future of aerospace in Southern California is in the Palmdale and Lancaster area, where "there is still a lot of open land in the desert and still a lot of people out there who don't give a damn about hearing supersonic booms, which is not true in Burbank anymore."

Other speakers included Fred Adler, former senior vice president of Hughes Aircraft; Allan Boardman, former vice president of Aerospace Corp.; and Thomas V. Jones, the former longtime chairman of Northrop Corp.

Among Friday's topics were the cross-pollination of the space program and Hollywood animation and the role of Chinese Americans in aerospace and the discrimination they faced. Researchers discussed how the industry spurred suburban growth and even helped shape the design of the surfboard.

One of the attendees Friday was Maj. Gen. Curtis M. Bedke, commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base and soon to be commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. While learning more about history, he said he hoped to hear clues from the past about how to recruit talent in the future.

"It's easy to send men to the moon but more difficult sometimes to convince them to come to the Antelope Valley in the middle of the Mojave Desert. On the other hand, once I get them there, they love it," he said.

Many current and retired industry employees came to the Huntington to hear tales about communications satellites and Pentagon missiles. But Luis Rivas, a Los Angeles resident and history buff who works as a sentencing advisor in federal courts, said he came to learn more about how aerospace "directly impacted our lives." Many of his relatives and friends worked in aerospace when he grew up in the 1980s and, bound by secrecy rules, they didn't offer details about their jobs.

"Everyone had a mystery. No matter how many times I asked, I never got a straight answer," he recalled, adding that he hoped the conference would help him discover "what all those people were up to."

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larry.gordon@latimes.com

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