How SoCal’s Secret Defense Contracts Evolved to Get Mankind on the Moon

Southern California produced two of the three stages of the behemoth Saturn V rocket, the space vehicle that housed the astronauts during the journey to the moon.

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When most people think about Southern California, they associate it with Hollywood, Disneyland, beaches and surfers. What they don’t associate it with is NASA’s Apollo program, and its majestic 36-story Saturn V rocket, shrouded by vapor as it waited on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral, or with the crackling radio voices telling Houston they have “a problem.”

But without Southern California’s tens of thousands of aerospace employees working for multiple contractors, big and small, there would have been no “great leap for mankind” on July 20, 50 years ago. It was Southern California engineers, machinists and support staff who produced two of the three stages of that behemoth rocket, including most of the engines that powered it, the space vehicle that housed the astronauts during that first fraught journey and those that followed.

The Saturn V launch vehicle (SA-506) for the Apollo 11 mission liftoff at 8:32 am CDT, July 16, 1969, from launch complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. | Courtesy of NASA
The Saturn V launch vehicle (SA-506) for the Apollo 11 mission liftoff at 8:32 am CDT, July 16, 1969, from launch complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. | Courtesy of NASA

“I think people have forgotten it, or the younger generation didn’t live through it,” said Peter Westwick, an aerospace historian, University of Southern California adjunct and editor of “Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California,” of that lack of association.

But with a little prodding, many, at least the locals who have roots in the area, do remember, Westwick said. He mentioned an exhibit on aerospace he helped organize at the Huntington Library in San Marino a few years ago, where visitors would suddenly recall just how many of their family members worked in what was SoCal’s biggest industry from the 1930s into the 1990s, attracting even more aspirants than Hollywood did starstruck actors. “People would say, ‘Oh, my aunt worked at Hughes!’” Westwick said.

Not only that, but many of the small cities and bedroom communities surrounding Los Angeles, like Santa Monica, Redondo, Long, Seal and Huntington beaches, Canoga Park, Lakewood and Downey, would never have grown past their agricultural or resort town roots without the aerospace companies that set up shop there, Westwick said. “It’s a huge under-recognized part of Southern California history,” he said, adding that part of that was by design, since these companies were often working on defense projects, including warplanes, satellites and intercontinental ballistic missiles — matters of national security.

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However, Apollo was funded by NASA, which, though government-backed, was a civilian agency.  And so, winning the very public space race to the moon was not just an irresistible challenge, but a nice change of pace for those workers whose companies got those prized defense contracts.

“It was refreshing to be working on a program that was not on a weapons system,” said Gerald Blackburn, a materials engineer who worked on Apollo, the Space Shuttles and other projects, before retiring in the early aughts. He is a former president of the Aerospace Legacy Foundation, a group dedicated to preserving the area’s aerospace history. “That period of Apollo was our cosmic Camelot,” he said. In the interest of giving those denizens of Camelot their due, here is a brief account of the contributions of the three major local contractors, and one subcontractor, who worked on Apollo, with apologies for not naming all of the 3,000 or so (per Blackburn) subcontractors, many local, who also contributed to one of the greatest technological achievements of the 20thcentury.

North American Aviation

When it comes to Apollo contracts, North American Aviation indisputably got the biggest part of the pie, being tasked not just with the second rocket stage, the colossal 81-foot-tall S-II, but also with the Command Module, the Service Module, and the escape rocket.

Founded in 1928 in Maryland, the company moved to El Segundo, California in 1935 (during its history, NAA also had plants in Columbus, Ohio and Tulsa, Oklahoma). In 1948, the company built the plant in Downey, where the Apollo space vehicle was born and where the S-II rocket stage was designed.

The company got the Apollo contracts in 1961 and soon started hiring massive numbers of staff for its Downey location. “The staff grew from 5,000 to 15,000 in three months,” said Benjamin Dickow, president and executive director of the Columbia Memorial Space Center, a museum built in 2009 by the city of Downey on one of the parking lots of the former plant, which closed in 1999. At its height, the Downey plant had 35,000 employees and was bigger than Disneyland, Dickow said.

Blackburn was one of those 35,000 people. Hired by NAA in 1962, he moved to the Downey location in 1964 and would work for the company and its later incarnations for the next 40 years. “Those were some interesting days,” Blackburn said. “Every day was a remarkable challenge. We had to learn how to do this; there was no instruction manual. And NASA was changing the rules every day.” Blackburn worked on both the Command Module — known as “the gumdrop” because of its shape — as well as the S-II.

Each part had its challenges, with the S-II being legendary for its many setbacks, which included exploding engines, difficulty welding and inadequate insulation. These issues were eventually solved (though uncomfortably close to deadline). The insulation problem was solved by imitating a honeycomb pattern used in surfboard construction. “Every day, problems were discovered,” Blackburn said. “We needed to find lighter materials, and you tended to look around you. The surfboard builders [on nearby beaches] were very good at their jobs. We looked at that process and adapted their designs.”

Assembled and mostly fabricated at an NAA-leased plant on the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station, the S-II was so large it had to be transported by barge to Cape Canaveral. It went past Mexico to the Panama Canal, through it, then back up to Florida.

But while frustrating, the issues with S-II were not heartbreaking, unlike with the Command Module. On January 27, 1967, a fire in the module during a preflight test killed the entire Apollo 1 crew, composed of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. “The Apollo 1 fire ground everything to a halt,” Dickow said, adding that the crew, along with all the Apollo astronauts, made frequent visits to Downey to oversee and familiarize themselves with the Command and Service modules, and often socialized with staff after long work days (a 60-hour work week was not unusual) were done. “It was very difficult,” Blackburn said. “Everyone coped with it in their own way. We had tested it; we were convinced it was ready to go. It was the shock of not knowing what happened, and the first question was, ‘oh my god, was it something I did?”

The tragedy cost NAA. While the company didn’t lose its Apollo contracts, and staffers like Blackburn kept their jobs, it wound up merging with Pennsylvania-based Rockwell Standard. North American Rockwell dropped the North American name a few years later, becoming Rockwell International.

But even with the delay caused by Apollo 1, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins made it to the moon — five months shy of John F. Kennedy’s promise to get men to the moon “by the end of the decade.”

As for North American Rockwell, employees at the Downey plant and in Seal Beach continued to work with NASA. The S-II was used to boost Skylab into orbit in 1973, and the Command Module transported astronauts to and from the space station.

The company was also tasked with building the space shuttles (hence the name of Downey’s museum). In 1996, Boeing bought Rockwell International. Boeing continues to work on NASA projects.


Canoga Park-based Rocketdyne supplied all the engines for the Saturn V, including the five F-1 engines in the first stage, called S-IC (built by Boeing, and assembled at its plant in Louisiana), five J-2 engines in the second stage, S-II (North American, see above) and one J-2 engine in the third stage, S-IVB (Santa Monica-based Douglas Aircraft, see below).

An essentially independent division of North American Aviation, Rocketdyne was first based at the company’s Inglewood location — making locals nervous by testing rockets in the parking lot — then at the Downey plant, before moving permanently to Canoga Park in 1955. Six years earlier, NAA had started building vertical rocket test stands in the Simi Hills, in what would become the Santa Susana Field Lab. In 1950, the first American version of the German V-2 rocket (the first rocket to break out of earth’s atmosphere, designed by rocket scientist Werhner von Braun and his team; von Braun would go on to design Saturn V for NASA) was tested there, on what Rocketdyne employees called “The Hill.”

The Hill would go on to witness thousands of rocket engine tests over the next 60 years, though some testing for Apollo engines was also done at Edwards Air Force Base, 90 miles away. Edwards was also the test site for the Lunar Module (built by Grumman Aircraft in New York), and astronauts made frequent trips there to practice in the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle. The Lunar Module’s ascent engine (which propelled astronauts from the moon’s surface to the orbiting command module) was designed by Bell Aerospace, but with Rocketdyne’s fuel injection system.

Like its parent company, Rocketdyne merged with Rockwell in 1967, though it mostly hung on to its name, even when sold to Boeing in 1996, then to Pratt-Whitney in 2005. In 2013, Rocketdyne merged with Aerojet to become Aerojet Rocketdyne.The Canoga Park facility was largely decommissioned by 2016, though the company’s headquarters moved from Sacramento to El Segundo that year. Aerojet Rocketdyne is working on several NASA projects, including the engines for the Orion missions.

TRW Systems Group

Based in Redondo Beach, TRW Systems Group was the Grumman Aircraft subcontractor who designed the Lunar Module descent engine, which propelled astronauts from the command service module to the moon. The TRW company, which had built its name in aerospace with the development of several intercontinental ballistic missile systems, had also worked previously with NASA on the Pioneer program.

The Lunar Module descent engine would prove crucial to the Apollo 13 mission, when an oxygen tank  in the service module exploded. While the lunar module provided a lifeboat for astronauts, the descent engine is what got them home to earth safely.

Northrop Grumman bought TRW in 2002. The company still operates out of the Redondo Beach plant, known locally as Space Park.

Douglas Aircraft

Santa Monica-based Douglas Aircraft built Saturn’s third rocket stage, the S-IVB. The company, which had been a fixture in the Southern California aviation industry since the 1920s (founded by Donald Douglas in 1921), was best known for designing and building civilian and military aircraft like the DC-3 and SBD Dauntless dive bomber. However, Douglas also soon got into rockets, working on the Nike and Thor missile systems.

In 1961, they were awarded the Apollo contract for the third rocket stage. While much smaller than North American’s S-II, at 58 feet, and powered by just one J-2 engine, it was crucial to the mission, being responsible for launching the space vehicle on its lunar trajectory before being shunted. Some missions even launched the S-IVB into the moon itself.

Its smaller size also made it easier to transport than the other stages, going to Florida by the Super Guppy, which also transported North American’s space vehicles. Parts for the S-IVB were built in Douglas facilities in Santa Monica, Long Beach, and Huntington Beach. Final manufacturing and assembly took place at the Huntington Beach plant, which had been specially designed for the project, and conveniently close to North American’s S-II facility in Seal Beach.

In 1967, two years before Apollo 11, Douglas merged with Missouri-based McDonnell Aircraft, who had worked on NASA’s Mercury and Gemini programs. After Apollo ended, the S-IVB got a new lease on life as Skylab, the first United States space station. Skylab operated from 1973 to 1979, when it was decommissioned and made international headlines with its far from graceful re-entry.

McDonnell Douglas ceased operations in Santa Monica in the mid-70s and was bought by Boeing in 1997. Boeing still runs the former McDonnell Douglas plants in Long Beach and Huntington Beach, but has cut back considerably on employees and facilities.