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North Hollywood junkyard: one giant heap for mankind

March 25, 2007|John Johnson Jr. | Times Staff Writer

Mounds of titanium and steel glinted in the afternoon sun, valves and pipes protruding in all directions like half-formed metal organisms.

In one corner of the warehouse was a twin of the Apollo command module engine that brought Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong back from the surface of the moon nearly 40 years ago. Nearby was the second-stage motor for a Saturn V, the most powerful rocket ever used in the U.S. space program.

Jonathan Goff, a 26-year-old rocket engineer, climbed atop a mound of titanium spheres once used to store highly explosive liquid oxygen rocket fuel and scanned the area for used rocket parts. "This is definitely a cool place," he said.

For almost five decades, Norton Sales Inc. in North Hollywood has been collecting the nuts, bolts and heat exchangers from the rockets that helped American astronauts shrug off the steely embrace of gravity.

This is where the bits and pieces of America's space program came to die.

Through most of its history, the space junkyard has served as part museum and part fantasy camp for wealthy collectors willing to plunk down thousands of dollars for a piece of an Apollo rocket. Some of its best customers have also been car customizers looking for cheap, spaceflight-grade hydraulic valves.

Now, after decades of NASA's dominance of spaceflight, private rocketeers are launching their own commercial space industry -- and they are flocking to Norton Sales, junkyard of the stars.

The Apollo command module engine goes for $1.5 million. That J-2 engine for the Saturn V? Yours for $500,000. A Thor rocket engine costs a relatively modest $75,000.

Smaller items attractive

The new generation of rocketeers is less interested in these big-ticket items than in the smaller pieces of scrap and surplus that they can use to build prototypes, often for a dime on the dollar of what it would cost to buy new parts.

"This is like the Holy Grail for a rocket enthusiast without much money," said Tim Pickens, president of Orion Propulsion, a rocket services company in Huntsville, Ala.

Norton has supplied parts to most of the new space rocketeers, including Burt Rutan's Mojave, Calif.-based Scaled Composites, which built the first privately funded manned craft to reach the edge of space, and Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp. in El Segundo, which launched the first privately funded craft to reach low-Earth orbit this month, though it malfunctioned after half an orbit.

From the outside, Norton's 12,000-square-foot warehouse doesn't look much like a hub of the budding commercial spaceflight industry. A misspelled sign on the wall reads: "Space Age Junk and Modern Collectables."

It's standard Valley repair-shop culture with dusty glass counters and autographed pictures of celebrities, including the star of "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." The celebrities aren't generally rocket hobbyists. They come in looking for hydraulic pumps that they adapt to make cars jump up and down like rearing stallions.

A frayed wooden gate leads to the rear of the warehouse, a dimly lighted storehouse as cold as a meat locker. Shelf upon shelf of parts reach high into the air. Rubber hoses wave from head-high shelves, like tube worms swaying around deep-sea cracks in Earth's crust.

Goff and his boss, Dave Masten, ambled past what is known as the "Rocketdyne aisle," because it is filled with parts made by that company. Thousands fell to the floor during the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The aisle is still nearly impassable, with piles of parts 2 feet deep.

A firm's high hopes

Masten heads a Santa Clara, Calif., rocket company called Masten Space Systems, which is trying to build a reusable suborbital launcher capable of carrying small payloads to space.

Masten, 39, is banking on the belief that there are a lot of people who would pay to put things in space if it were cheap enough. Like many of the new breed of rocket jockeys, Masten made his fortune in computer technology. After cashing in his stock options for several million dollars, he was ready to dream again.

"I'm still going to be an astronaut when I grow up," he said.

Masten had previously purchased some parts from Norton Sales. This visit, he and Goff weren't sure what they were buying. "It's dangerous coming to a place like this," Masten said. "It's like shopping on an empty stomach."

Goff opened a drawer full of regulators. "How much are these?" he asked.

"A hundred," replied owner Carlos Guzman, a 40-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who started out as a worker for the original owners.

"Is that all?" Goff replied.

Norton Sales was founded by Sherman Oaks restaurateur Norton J. Holstrom, who began buying up scrap rocket parts in the early 1960s. His timing was perfect.

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