The Home Town Buffet in Santa Ana isn’t any different from the chain’s many other locations, but it’s the regulars who frequent this particular outpost that make it truly special. Once a month, this chain is a surprising meeting spot for some of the world’s greatest minds: the engineers who built spacecraft that sent mankind to the moon and beyond.
On a quiet Wednesday morning, a few seniors were gathered outside the restaurant, discussing plans for special benches to be built which will commemorate the work of North American Aviation (NAA). For decades, the brain trust behind NAA (which, after some mergers and acquisitions, became known as North American Rockwell Corporation, then Rockwell International, and finally Boeing North American) operated an aerospace manufacturing plant in Downey, about 20 miles northwest of this restaurant. The Downey headquarters played such a major role in the space program that its team at one point even managed operating facilities in seven states, according to Gerald Blackburn’s book, “Downey’s Aerospace History 1947-1999.”
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While NASA has become a household name for all things space-related, North American, whose monumental contributions to space travel are lesser-known to the general public, is also deserving of being in the limelight. After all, its engineers meticulously crafted famous aerospace vehicles, like the Apollo command and service module and Space Shuttle orbiter.
Peter Magoski, who was at NAA and its subsequent companies for 31 years as a project engineer, has regularly been lunching with his former colleagues ever since he retired in the early 1990s. He said they all met at work “arguing about things” and now their “conversations drift all over the place” at these low-key get-togethers.
Magoski’sright: After over a dozen more of his peers began crowding around the entrance to Home Town Buffet, they all made their way to the back of the restaurant to a private room to dine and continue their conversations. Their discussions jumped from updates on personal health to spouses. They swapped stories about working on the Apollo and posited what went wrong with the disastrous Columbia and Challenger missions. To an interloper, these guys seemed like they were speaking in code at times, referencing old NAA building numbers, using nicknames for major players in the space industry and casually discussing rocket propellants like nitrogen tetroxide and monomethylhydrazine.
“[Working at NAA] was a great adventure,” Magoskisaid, adding that it was also often challenging. “We had the best of the best of engineers.”
Wil Swan, a program manager who focused on Apollo’s Earth Landing System, sat down at one of the three tables occupied by this group. When Swan worked at NAA, he was assigned to personally advise Alan Bean, the fourth person to walk on the moon. Another man landed his buffet tray next to Swan; it was Dick Thiel, an engineer who analyzed the spacecraft’s parachute system. And the last person to sit down at this table was Hank Darlington, who worked in the Test and Operations department, the last line in the fabrication of the Apollo system. He and his team of 130 engineers would test the telecommunications systems before the spacecraft would get shipped to Florida.
“I’m the only guy in here that’s from Test and Operations. Everybody else is from Engineering,” said Darlington, who added that he hadn’t met any of these other folks before going to these luncheons because he worked in a different building at NAA.
Earlier, Magoski, who sat at another table, reverently talked about Lawrence “Larry” Korb, a Materials-and-Process engineer who worked on the Apollo and Space Shuttle Orbiter programs for more than 45 years as an employee and consultant. Magoskisaid Korbis “one of the geniuses I was talking about. We couldn’t have done it without him.”
Korb’sspecialty was running failure analyses on all the structures in the programs to figure out problems like why a vehicle caught fire or was understrength. After the Space Shuttle Columbia accident in 2003, which killed all seven crew members on board, NASA called upon Korbto investigate what went wrong. Korbtraveled to Huntsville, Alabama to sort through 83,000 parts that were collected from the exploded spacecraft, and he and his team figured out the issue in an astonishing two weeks.
“That was an interesting problem, but I was 73 years old when I was down there working. We weren’t allowed to pick up any pieces. We could [only] look at it. We had to get down on our hands and knees. I thought I’d never get up,” Korb said, laughing.
Korb documented the history of the space programs and its successes and failures in his 2017 book, “Memories of the Apollo and Space Shuttle Programs." It wasn’t uncommon to hear some of the engineers at the restaurant discuss how NAA was unfairly blamed for what they believed were NASA’s failures, and how many of their concerns about safety issues were overruled by the space agency.
These sorts of memories paint a bigger picture as to what went on during the golden age of space exploration, and there are people, like Blackburn, who are documenting these stories. Blackburn, an engineer and project manager who worked for North American and Boeing for 35 years, is also the former president of the Aerospace Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit that works to preserve Southern California’s aerospace history.
Blackburn said he didn’t have a real interest in the history of the Downey plant until Boeing sold its 160 acres in 1998 as part of its efforts to relocate. The City of Downey called him to do “some urban archaeology” on the plant. He put a team together and over the last decade they’ve been collecting information and interviewing people on the history of the facility.
Blackburn isn’t the only one who is trying to connect with Downey’s aerospace history. Gilbert BevenFlorez Jr. sporadically attends these luncheons as a way to connect with his own past, to learn more about his late father, Gilbert Florez Sr., who was an NAA electrical engineer on the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs.
BevenFlorez, a student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a part-time technical safety and quality professor at Cal State LA, stood out in this group because he was the youngest person in the room. Clipped to his shirt was a badge holder containing a photo of his father. He made his way around the room, chatting with some of the engineers who worked with his dad.
“I’ve heard stories [from these guys about my father]. A lot of them have been awesome, and they’ve been really great,” BevenFlorez said.
The elder Floreznever attended these lunches. BevenFlorez said his father was a private person, who didn’t tell his family much about his aerospace work because he was “very big on operations security.” As a result, BevenFlorezdidn’t know much about what his father did.
It wasn’t until his father passed away in 2014 and BevenFlorezinherited a crate of his personal items that he began learning more about him. He was surprised to discover that back in 1997 when his parents said they were going on vacation; his father was really accepting an award for his work and attending a space shuttle launch, unbeknownst to BevenFlorez.
One of the few space-related stories he did hear about from his parents was that they weren’t able to marry until after Apollo 11 launched on July 16, 1969. His parents wed three days later, on a Saturday, and then watched the moon landing that Sunday.
“[My dad] had asked my mom [to marry him] a year prior, but everything was on a contingency until project completion, [so they] could not set a [wedding] date,” he explained. “North American was not letting anyone take vacation time. Some of the colleagues said they had to know where you were on weekends and on your time off.”
The staff was expected to be packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice. He recalled his dad mentioning to him that he had a shaving kit on hand to take with him to the plant. It was a very busy time for NAA. “At the peak of the Apollo program, over 23,000 employees worked at the Downey facility. Three shifts per day were staggered to allow for traffic and parking around the facility,” according to “Downey’s Aerospace History 1947-1999.”
It wasn’t only BevenFlorezwho stuck out at this luncheon. Besides Blackburn’s wife, Joann Curtin was the only other woman in attendance. Curtin had a 52-year career at NAA, Rockwell and Boeing. She said she started in the telephone office in 1962 because “at the time, the only jobs for women were [as] telephone operators and secretaries, nurses or schoolteachers.” She worked her way up through different departments in the Space Shuttle and GPS IIFprograms.
In NAA’searly days, the only way to call into the plant was through a switchboard. Curtin remembered working the telephones on January 27, 1967, when the tragic Apollo 1 fire took the lives of three astronauts. “We had like 40 operators,” Curtin said. “The whole switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree. Every light [lit up, so] we knew something bad had happened. And that’s when we found out. We thought they were going to end the [space] program.”
However, the Downey plant continued to be involved in the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs until the end of the 20thcentury. Over the last couple of decades, the acreage where the Downey plant once stood has since been developed into everything from a strip mall to hospital and film studio. As a link to its aerospace past, the Columbia Memorial Space Center sits on the land that NAA once occupied, and the science museum will be commemorating Apollo 11’s 50thanniversary with a bevy of free events throughout July.
Space travel has left an indelible mark on society not only because it challenged mankind to do what previously seemed impossible, but it also brought about the staggering technology we are lucky to have in this day and age. We have the Downey plant to partly thank for that. “Not only did we go to the moon and all that, but [think of] the derivatives, the outfall from all that: [it’s become] the medicine of today, the computers of today!” Magoski said.