SOUTH BAY / COVER STORY : Mission to the Moon : They Shot the Moon, and Made It

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Around the clock, workers in white smocks scrambled to assemble the world's most advanced technology in Rockwell International's Building 290. Newsmen, scientists and astronauts visited, seemingly watching their every move. The floor of the hangar-like facility was littered with half-built spacecraft.

In the 1960s, during the days of the Apollo space missions, this building in Downey was known as Tepee Village, nicknamed for the capsule-like shapes of the command and service modules that were readied there for shipment to Cape Canaveral.

It was here, 25 years ago, that a work force assembled a spacecraft that took men to the heavens and returned them safely home to Earth.

The mission enlisted workers from all over the Southland: In Redondo Beach, they designed and built the engines that landed men on the moon. In Seal Beach, they erected part of the rocket that blasted those three astronauts into space. In El Segundo, they created the docking ports that linked spacecraft modules together during a celestial rendezvous.

The Apollo program, which let men walk, drive and hit golf balls on the moon, is over. But for many of those who worked at area aerospace firms to design and build much of the equipment to get there, the mission is the highlight of their careers, even if they were far from the spotlight.

Many have retired. Others were laid off not long after the moon landing. Some are now top executives or have started their own companies. But most agree that nothing was quite like working on the lunar landings.

"The objective was very clear: Man. Moon. 1970," said former Apollo astronaut David Scott, 62, who walked on the moon in 1971 and now lives in Manhattan Beach. "Everyone understood exactly what the objective was."

Many thought that, by now, NASA would be embarking on a manned exploration of Mars or building a lunar base. But even a scaled-back space station has had trouble getting funding from Congress.

Today, Building 290 in Downey, where the lunar modules were assembled, is silent. Offices are darkened and shuttered, with little activity except for space shuttle upgrade work.

The Apollo program "built to a crescendo, then kind of died away," said Westchester resident John Gibb, 75, who headed the development of the propulsion system in the spacecraft. "They had the climax, and then it was all over. It doesn't seem to amount to much anymore."

And many of the spacecraft engineers who worked on Apollo have gone on to other work--or are out of work.

"I see them in my classes," said Shirley Thomas, a USC professor who has helped aerospace engineers retrain as environmental engineers. "Bright men, a third of them with Ph.Ds, are just bleeding.

They've sold the first car, they've sold the second car, they've sold the home, and they can't find work."

Many former workers, plus retirees such as Palos Verdes Estates resident Rocco A. Petrone, 68, long for the days when space exploration was a national goal.

"After 25 years, I'm still enthused," said Petrone, then-director of launch operations at Kennedy Space Center and later the president of Rockwell's space division. "I wish the nation was."

Those on the Apollo projects often worked more than 60 hours a week, getting little sleep. Many saw their families break apart, and some developed health problems because of the demanding work. Even on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong took that first step on the moon, employees at Rockwell continued working, peering at black-and-white TV sets during breaks.

Some thrived on the pace.

"They were really unbelievable times," said Beverly Gresham, a Rockwell secretary in customer relations who has been with the company since 1958. "(If) you talk to the people who are retiring, they will say it was the most fun they have ever had."

In those days, billions of dollars poured into the space programs. And for young engineers with brand-new degrees, it meant opportunities. Robert Sackheim was still taking college courses when he went to work for TRW Inc., which was designing the engine that lowered Armstrong's lunar module from the hovering spacecraft to the moon.

As a development engineer, he split his time between the headquarters in Redondo Beach and a testing facility in San Juan Capistrano. He remembers all-nighters, with some people taking catnaps in their chairs.

"It was a lot of just grinding out the details," said Sackheim, now the manager of TRW's Propulsion and Combustion Center. "We were doing a lot of mundane details. But, overall, it was a real technical challenge, not a minor feat. The lunar module had to land safely, and that was very important."

*

Even when the work was not thrilling, former workers say, working on the program was. At Cosmodyne in Torrance, workers had previously perfected cryogenic systems, which were put to the test in cooling lunar module components. "Technically, it was not very challenging," said President Russ Brown. "(But) the mission itself excited the imagination. You could not help but feel it."

Most of the activity during the Apollo days was at Rockwell International Corp. (North American Aviation until 1967 and North American Rockwell until 1972). At the time, North American's space operations were based in Downey, where the spacecraft was made, and in Seal Beach, where the company built the second stage of the Saturn V rocket that launched the astronauts into space. Its Rocketdyne Division built boosters for the rocket in Canoga Park.

The mastermind of the company's foray into space was Harrison (Stormy) Storms, an aerospace maverick who lived on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

When he took over the company's missile division in Downey in 1960, Storms already had played a pivotal role in the development of the P-51 Mustang during World War II, the F-86 Sabre Jet of the Korean War, the F-100 Super Sabre and the X-15 rocket.

At the time, he could see that defense contracts were on the wane. Author Mike Gray, in his book on North American's Apollo program, "Angle of Attack," wrote: "The romantic era when half a dozen guys could gather in a hotel room and design a bomber over a couple of cases of beer was about to be replaced by something off the scale of everyone's experience--something monumental."

The change started in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy called for a trip to the moon by the end of the decade. Storms had shared the same goal since he was a young man.

"As long as I can remember, he said, 'I want the moon with a red ribbon on it,' " said his widow, Phyllis Storms, who lives in Rancho Palos Verdes. "This was a whole new adventure, whole new worlds."

But competing aerospace firms had a head start on the moon shot, and some called North American's team "tin benders," according to Gray's book. So Storms assembled a team of experts that eventually became known as the "Storm Troopers," named for the group's swift action in launching the Downey facility's space program.

"We were a well-organized, well-managed team," said David Levine, 67, who was chief electrician and has since retired in Palm Springs. "Certainly Stormy was the fire, the incentive, the motivator."

Storms also was tough to work for: He often pitted teams of engineers against each other to come up with solutions to solve a problem.

"He fired me about five dozen times," said Hermosa Beach resident Earl Blount, who was in charge of the space division's public relations. "Stormy, of course, he was the guy (who) made it happen. We were just the unseen ditchdiggers."

Overall, the work force of North American's space division multiplied. By 1964, at the height of the development, 35,000 employees worked there, most of them in Downey.

The plant gained national attention. Astronauts, including Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins from Apollo 11, often came to perform flight simulations and tests, staying overnight at the Tahitian Village, a hotel down the street with a Polynesian theme. The astronauts became friendswith some of the top designers and engineers.

"It was a good feeling to get on top of a rocket ship with 6 million pounds under you, and you can say, 'These are my friends who built this,' " said astronaut Scott, who also went on the Apollo 9 mission in March, 1969, which tested the spacecraft's docking functions within earth's orbit.

Some of the safeguards were designed by trial and error.

For example, one of the titanium tanks for the spacecraft's engines exploded in a test at the Downey plant, said Gibb, the Westchester engineer. But there was no explosion in identical tests done by the tank's manufacturer. The problem: Pure nitrogen tetroxide, the chemical that was placed in the tanks, undergoes a violent reaction with titanium. They added water to dilute it.

"You were dealing with problems with technology that was never designed before," Gibb said.

In addition, because of NASA's efforts at quality control, all of the metals had to be traced back to their origins--right down to where the metals in screws were mined.

That meant taxing hours. Employees sometimes were away for days, or were called to work in the middle of the night to fix a problem. If a test failed, it could mean working into the night until it was corrected.

"One Christmas, I spent the morning with my family, but at 11:30 I got on an airplane in Southern California and headed off (for Houston)," said Manhattan Beach resident George Merrick, 66, then the chief engineer of the command service module programs. "I said, 'OK, guys, I'll see you later.' The way it was, if it took six days a week to get the job done, you did it."

*

The long hours and the workers' single-minded dedication to the job were often hard on the their families.

"If we could get down to a 10-hour day, we were lucky," said Bud Benner, 70, of Cowan Heights, who was chief of engineering for spacecraft design. "Your family suffers. I was very fortunate I had a wife who brought up our boys in good shape."

During the height of development in the mid-1960s, Benner's 13-year-old son died of a blood infection.

"That was pretty rough," he said. "It was devastating for my wife. I had to go soft for a while and pull back. But then you get involved again, all kinds of hours. These are very challenging programs. You can't just coast. I was back within a couple months."

Other employees suffered health problems or serious stress effects. Storms had a heart attack at work.

"He, of course, didn't want to go to hospital, but, of course, they took him," Phyllis Storms said.

Her husband suffered a major setback in January, 1967, when three astronauts were killed in an explosion at Cape Canaveral. Later, Long Beach's three offshore oil islands were named in their honor.

Stormy "was extremely depressed," Phyllis Storms said. "It was just terrible. Those were his friends."

The cause was believed to be a spark that ignited the pure oxygen that filled the capsule.

Charles Feltz, then the spacecraft program manager, said he and others argued for an escape hatch, but NASA told them to take it out.

*

Even so, part of the blame eventually was passed to the company, and the accident cost Storms his job. He was replaced as president of the space division.

"Stormy happened to be the one who paid the price," said Blount, the public relations worker. Storms served briefly as a vice president of the company, and then became a consultant to the aerospace industry. He died in 1992.

The problems caused some workers at the facility to become even more driven.

"There was a kind of anger when everyone pointed fingers at everyone else," Blount said. "But there was a determination to do even better."

In the end, North American delivered a spacecraft light enough to be thrust into space and durable enough to withstand the 3,000-degree heat upon re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. The command module--the only part of the spacecraft left by the end of the mission--contained about 15 miles of wire and had 2 million functional parts. But it was just under 11 feet tall and 13 feet wide, and weighed 12,800 pounds.

When Apollo 11 was launched, Storms watched from a boat that a friend had chartered. He was not invited to Cape Canaveral. And 4 1/2 days later, when Armstrong set foot on the moon, Storms was watching TV at home in Palos Verdes Estates, alone with his wife.

At the North American plant, a model of the solar system was set up in the auditorium, along with speakers to carry the astronauts' radio communications.

Employees who were off that Sunday tell stories of swarming to TV sets and radios.

"I was on the golf course with my wife and a couple of other people," said Dan Brown, 60, of Fountain Valley, who was director of manufacturing and now is a company vice president. "A man came up to me and said, 'You want me to believe that man is walking on the moon? Not in my lifetime.' He didn't believe it."

*

At North American, employees got to celebrate when the astronauts came back to earth. There was a big splashdown party at the Tahitian Village. Several weeks later, the three astronauts came to thank the workers for their contributions.

But even as they celebrated, the program was winding down.

"We were laying off hundreds of people almost instantly," Blount said.

When Walter Cronkite went to the plant to do a story on the layoffs, the employees he interviewed all said they were proud of the Apollo program, Blount said. Thinking that it was a public relations ploy on the part of the company, Cronkite approached an elderly woman who had been laid off. Her response was the same.

"She told him, 'My grandkids will know I worked on this program,' " Blount recalled.

Rockwell went on to build the space shuttle, and the company currently is constructing a docking module and shuttle upgrades at its Downey site.

*

Many of the astronauts have tried entrepreneurial ventures. Former astronaut Scott is president of Scott Science and Technology in Santa Monica, a business that is promoting smaller lunar missions and satellite salvage operations. Apollo 12 astronaut Richard F. Gordon of Manhattan Beach runs Space Age America, a small company gathering artifacts for a Japanese space museum.

A group of other Apollo veterans, meanwhile, are planning a 25th anniversary celebration of the moon landing for July 20, when a host of engineering firms will be honored for their role in the mission.

Others have lost touch with their colleagues. Levine, the electronics engineer, says he's spent the past 15 years getting to know his family. Few of his Palm Springs neighbors even know that he worked on Apollo.

"There's almost no interest," he said. "A good basketball game has almost more interest than space. It's hard to believe. But every time I see the moon, I see the guys walking up there, and I think about what an incredible journey this was."

Ted Johnson is a Times staff writer. Times staff writer Greg Johnson also contributed to this story.

Mission to the Moon

Redondo Beach: TRW Inc. designed and built the engine for the lunar module that allowed astronauts to descend onto the moon from their hovering spacecraft. In 1970, Apollo 13 astronauts used the engines to return to Earth after an explosion in their capsule forced the moon mission to be aborted.

Downey: North American Aviation, later Rockwell International, designed and built the spacecraft for the Apollo missions, including the command and service modules. It also built the adapter that housed the lunar module.

Seal Beach: Rockwell built the second stage of the Saturn V rocket, which thrust astronauts from Cape Canaveral into space. The rocket part was loaded on a barge from the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station and shipped to Cape Canaveral.

El Segundo: Rockwell built parts used in the docking of the command and lunar modules, as well as a launch escape tower.

Source: Rockwell, TRW.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°