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Space Park in Redondo Beach will get the star treatment

The sprawling complex where the nation's most advanced and secret spacecraft were developed will be designated a historic aerospace site by the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics.

December 14, 2011|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
  • The descent enginer for an Apollo lunar module is readied for shipment from a TRW facility in the Space Park in the late 1960s
The descent enginer for an Apollo lunar module is readied for shipment from… (Northrop Grumman )

For half a century, the sprawling 110-acre aerospace complex in Redondo Beach has played host to the development of the nation's most advanced and secret spacecraft.

Known as Space Park, the site was built at the height of the Cold War after the launch of Sputnik for engineers to develop a high-powered rocket that could deliver a nuclear warhead 6,000 miles away in less than an hour to virtually wipe out an entire city: the intercontinental ballistic missile.

The complex's 47 buildings have served as a nerve center for the development and construction of high-powered lasers, cutting-edge electronics and sophisticated spacecraft. Satellites developed at the site have explored faraway planets, provided space-based telecommunications for troops on the battlefield and spied on enemies' fortified defense enclaves.

Space Park is also the site of the famed "Falcon and the Snowman" incident, in which a disillusioned young employee with a top security clearance spied for the Soviet Union. Along with an accomplice, he was arrested in 1977 after selling the Soviets thousands of secret documents, including material revealing spy satellite plans. They were convicted and sent to prison.

The incident was featured in a bestselling book and 1985 movie starring Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton.

On Wednesday, the campus will be designated a historic aerospace site in a ceremony by the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics, the nation's largest society of aerospace engineers and scientists.

In addition to the ICBM, Space Park is the birthplace for the rocket engines that first lowered man onto the moon, instrument packages that scoured Mars' surface for life, and the James Webb Space Telescope, which is now under development to replace the Hubble Space Telescope.

"As a company, we always wanted to recruit the most talented people to take on the government's most important programs," said 98-year-old Simon Ramo, who along with his late colleague Dean Wooldridge bought the land from the Santa Fe Railroad in 1960 for their company, Space Technology Laboratories.

Space Park would eventually become home to TRW Inc. — the "R" representing Ramo and the "W" Wooldridge. Since 2002, Space Park has been part of aerospace giant Northrop Grumman Corp., which recently moved to its headquarters to Falls Church, Va., from Century City.

Today, about 7,500 people work at Space Park and its 5 million square feet of engineering office space, high-bay assembly areas and clean-room laboratories.

Decades after the Cold War, there are still details of Space Park programs that remain sensitive to national security, and Ramo can't talk about them.

"A lot of amazing things were done there," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org. "Some of those things we might actually find out about. I would guess there's more history there that we don't know about than we do."

Space Park is a key part of California's space industry, along with Boeing Co.'s satellite-making operation in nearby El Segundo and Lockheed Martin Corp.'s missile and space division in Sunnyvale.

The sprawling complex is designed like a college campus — spread out with gardens and sculptures dotting the landscape. That was by design. Ramo wanted every engineer to have a window and said he wanted to differentiate Space Park from other aerospace companies, which would pack engineers side by side at drafting tables in windowless, musty hangars.

Ramo and Wooldridge had experienced the claustrophobia of such working conditions as colleagues at Hughes Aircraft Co. in Playa Vista, where they had an established record working at the leading edge of the new field of electronic warfare and guidance systems. The pair walked away from the company and their eccentric boss, Howard Hughes, in 1953 and started their own company.

It wasn't long after they opened for business that President Eisenhower gave the young scientists the task of developing the ICBM. With that responsibility came a reputation as a national leader in space technology.

"Everyone knew that if you were working for us on the ICBM program, you were working on the top-priority program in the country," Ramo said.

One of their recruits was Bruce Gerding, now a vice president of Northrop's aerospace systems unit who joined TRW in 1970. He has been based at Space Park for more than four decades.

"I always thought of Space Park as an aerospace Camelot," he said. "When you think about the legacy of Space Park, it's not the lasers or satellites that we've built here. It's the people who built and developed the technology."

Loren Thompson, defense policy analyst for the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., said that Space Park has had a concentration of skills that can't be trumpeted because of national security secrets. But those in the defense industry know its importance: "People in Space Park accomplish missions that no one else in the world can accomplish."

william.hennigan@latimes.com

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