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Ex-Astronaut Moves Firm to Lancaster

TIMES STAFF WRITER

L. Gordon Cooper has plenty of travel experience.

So the Mercury astronaut-turned-businessman had no qualms about packing up his fledgling San Fernando Valley aviation business and heading for his home state of Oklahoma.

Too many problems for business in California, he figured.

On Thursday, the space pioneer made it official: His Galaxy Group Inc. is leaving Van Nuys.

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But instead of Oklahoma, the former astronaut is opting for a shorter trip to a new home in Lancaster, where the high desert city rolled out the red carpet to welcome him.

Lancaster officials told a news conference Thursday that Cooper’s decision proves California communities can buck the trend of manufacturing firms leaving the state.

For Cooper, a 66-year-old Encino resident, the decision was part business and part nostalgia.

Lancaster has agreed to subsidize Galaxy to the tune of $300,000 over five years. But Cooper said part of the lure was Lancaster’s wide-open flying spaces and a chance to return to the vicinity of Edwards Air Force Base, where he was a test pilot during the late 1950s.

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“A lot of us started out here on aviation in the desert,” said Cooper, who flew 22 Earth orbits in his 1963 Mercury mission. “It’s nice to be coming back. We’re kind of partial to California, and we’re particularly keen on the high desert.”

Edwards Air Force Base, home of the nation’s test pilots, and nearby Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale--where the space shuttles were built--have made the Antelope Valley a historic center for aerospace.

But with declining defense budgets, local officials are now looking to commercial ventures to keep jobs in the region.

Cooper plans to modify engines for two common models of twin-engine prop aircraft used by businesses. He plans to replace their piston engines with more efficient and powerful turbine models at a cost to customers of about $700,000 per plane.

Company officials said there are at least 800 of the airplanes in the United States, and they believe owners would pay for the change because turbine engines last longer, are easier to maintain and use cheaper jet fuel instead of gasoline. The company expects to retrofit three of the airplanes each month.

Under the deal, Galaxy Group will leave its current facility near the Van Nuys Airport and move to a leased hangar and office building at the county’s Fox Field in Lancaster. The city’s $300,000 contribution will pay for most of the lease.

In return, Galaxy Group is giving the foundation that supports the city’s Performing Arts Center a 17% stake in the company, estimated to be worth up to $500,000. And since the deal requires the company to sell its engines locally, the city expects to get up to $476,000 in sales-tax revenue.

Cooper said the company’s dozen full-time employees probably will relocate to its new Lancaster facility. But company officials said they also expect to hire about 16 additional employees.

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Cooper said his company was going to leave the Van Nuys Airport because the heavy air traffic in the Los Angeles area makes aircraft testing difficult.

Lancaster officials said their deal with Cooper is the city’s first use of a new subsidy program to attract new business and jobs. Antelope Valley leaders in particular have been targeting San Fernando Valley businesses to recruit.


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