BIOTECHNOLOGY : AEROSPACE : For Nearly a Century, Ambitious Thinkers and Doers Have Reached for the Skies. Don't Count Them Out in the 21st Century.

Preston Lerner last wrote about Formula One race fans for the magazine

Long derelict, their institutional paint faded by the Southern California sun, the buildings dot the Burbank landscape like colossal relics of an age when bigger was better and there seemed to be no end to America's industrial might.

Inside these decaying sentinels, Lockheed workers built thousands of Vegas, P-38 Lightnings, Model 49 Constellations, Stealth Fighters--planes that helped win wars, conquer oceans, inaugurate the Jet Age and transform a sleepy nexus of orange groves into the San Fernando Valley's most highly industrialized city. Today, the lathes are silent, the assembly lines stilled. The work once done in Burbank is now performed in Palmdale, Fort Worth and Marietta, Ga. Lockheed, as such, no longer exists: Like most of the region's other indigenous aviation giants, it's been overtaken by merger mania, and Lockheed Martin (as the company is now known) is headquartered in Maryland, as far as possible from the Santa Barbara garage where the first Loughead (as it was then known) flying boat was built in 1918.

Los Angeles may indeed be a company town, but until recently, the dominant industry was aerospace, not entertainment. Just as Lockheed was synonymous with Burbank, so was Douglas twinned with Santa Monica, Northrop with Hawthorne, North American with Inglewood, Rockwell with Downey. At one point, nearly half of the airplanes built in America were designed, fabricated and assembled in Southern California. The first American satellite was built here. So was the rocket that launched it. As local aviation historian Bill Schoneberger puts it: "More aviation history has been made in Southern California than anywhere else in the world."

These days, thanks to tax breaks, cheap labor and pork-barrel politics, the aerospace industry is so geographically diverse that it's no longer possible to designate any one area as its core. That said, aerospace remains central to the Southern California economy. Granted, the paradigm has changed: We're building satellites instead of airplanes, space launch vehicles rather than intercontinental ballistic missiles. But despite massive layoffs caused by the defense drawdown of the '90s, aerospace still accounts for nearly 150,000 jobs in the Los Angeles area.

Just as aerospace has helped define Southern California, from the heroic test pilots of "The Right Stuff" to the alienated out-of-work engineer in "Falling Down," so has Southern California put its stamp on aerospace. For nearly a century, the industry's most resourceful thinkers and ambitious doers have flocked here, drawn not only by the prospect of idyllic flying weather but also by a promise of a metaphorical blue sky that encouraged --no, demanded--relentless experimentation.

"The culture was so aggressive," says Paul Klevatt, an engineer who hired on with Douglas at the dawn of the Space Age and recently served as program manager of a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle straight out of "Buck Rogers." "There were no ground rules. We didn't know what we couldn't do, so we just went ahead and did it."

Consider these signposts of progress: First powered flight in 1903. First transatlantic flight in 1927. First flight through the sound barrier in 1947. First man in orbit in 1961. First man on the moon in 1969.

Three generations from Icarus to Asimov. "Things moved pretty fast, didn't they?" says Ralph Ruud, who started his 60-year career working on canvas-winged biplanes and ended it overseeing production of the space shuttle. Predictably, most of the breakthroughs were made at the so-called primes, corporate conglomerates with armies of engineers and extravagant cost-plus budgets. But Burt Rutan built the Voyager, the first plane to fly around the world without refueling, for $186,000 in a tiny shop in Mojave. The Gossamer Condor, the first successful human-powered aircraft, was developed by Paul MacCready and a small cadre of free-thinkers in Pasadena. The little-known Ramo-Wooldridge Corp. was the birthplace of the American ballistic missile defense system. Referring to his research in Caltech's world-renowned wind tunnel during the '40s, former Hughes Aircraft CEO Allen Puckett once said: "It was impossible not to discover something new every day." And now? "If I were coming out of school today," Ruud says, "I'd go into computers."

Back in 1909, of course, there were no clouds on the horizon. Shortly after dawn on Aug. 1, Glenn L. Martin made Southern California's first flight--it lasted all of 12 seconds--over an Orange County lima bean field in an airplane he'd built in an abandoned Methodist church in Santa Ana. Before long, Martin was running a flying school in Griffith Park and building airplanes in an L.A. factory. But a corporate merger soon prompted him to move to Cleveland. So it was left to his chief engineer, Donald Douglas, to start his own company in the back room of a downtown Los Angeles barbershop and put Southern California on the international aviation map.

Besides creating the seminal DC-3, the plane that made air travel commercially viable, Douglas Aircraft was also the training ground for some of aviation's most influential figures: Jack Northrop, creator of the Flying Wing; Jerry Vultee, founder of a company that ultimately became General Dynamics; Dutch Kindelberger and Lee Atwood, the visionaries behind North American, later rolled into Rockwell.

In Burbank, Lockheed's future was being shaped by a supremely confident young designer by the name of Kelly Johnson, whose first act upon being hired was to announce that the company's newest design would be unsafe to fly. (Naturally, he knew how to fix it.) Later, after forming a top-secret unit known as the Skunk Works, Johnson became the world's premier designer of military aircraft.

By 1940, aviation already accounted for more than half of the manufacturing workers in the Los Angeles area. Yet when the war began, employment skyrocketed beyond comprehension. (More people worked at Burbank's Lockheed plants than lived in the city.) After the war, most aircraft jobs disappeared--at North American alone, employment plummeted from 91,000 to 5,000--establishing the roller-coaster model that continues to bedevil the industry. To cite a more recent example, Rocketdyne employment peaked at 20,000 in 1967 as the company built the F-1 engines that powered Saturn V leviathans to the moon, dwindled to 3,000 when the Apollo program ended, rose to 8,000 as work climaxed on the space shuttle main engine, then fell to 2,000 after the engines were delivered. At the moment, with the company developing new rockets, 5,000 people work in its complex in Canoga Park.

On the airframe side of the business, Southern California is riding a trough unprecedented since Glenn L. Martin's defection in 1916. Today, the name of the game is aerospace--a coinage that's barely 30 years old. When the industry took shape after World War II, it coalesced in Southern California more by happenstance than design, largely because the engineering expertise and manufacturing infrastructure were already here. The first practical American rocket emerged from experiments conducted in the Arroyo Seco, a dry wash near the Rose Bowl, under the auspices of Theodore von Karman, the celebrated theoretician who ramrodded Caltech's aeronautical program. To harness this new technology, Caltech formed its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which would go on to build the nation's first satellite and has since been responsible for spacecraft that ventured to Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune.

Rocket engines proved to be the stuff of high drama--and sometimes tragedy--staged on the pancake-flat dry lakes of the Mojave Desert. Although it took Tom Wolfe to make it a pop-culture icon, Muroc Field, now known as Edwards Air Force Base, was long recognized by cognoscenti as America's principal repository of the right stuff and the busiest flight-test center in the world--distinctions that remain as true today as they were 50 years ago. "Every test pilot thinks he's indestructible," says Bob Hoover, a stick-and-rudder legend who, at 77, still flies in dozens of air shows a year. "But if you think about it, every street up at Edwards is named for a dead pilot except the one named after Chuck Yeager."

Hoover was flying chase in a P-80 Shooting Star--a Skunk Works product that became the country's first operational jet fighter--when Yeager boomed through the sound barrier in a bright-orange, bullet-shaped rocket-plane he'd christened Glamorous Glennis. Six years later, an Edwards-based Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket bettered Mach 2 and zoomed to an altitude of 83,235 feet. Space beckoned, but Yeager and his drinking buddies at Pancho Barnes' notorious Happy Bottom Riding Club wanted nothing to do with it. "At the time," Hoover recalls, "they were putting monkeys on a [rocket-powered] sled, and we thought, 'Who wants to sit in a can and have no control over it?' "

In many respects, the space program can be seen as an outgrowth of the ballistic missile defense program developed through the collaboration of Air Force visionary Bernard A. Schriever and electronics wizard Simon Ramo. In 1953, Schriever persuaded Ramo and fellow Hughes R&D; engineer Dean E. Wooldridge to create their own company to concentrate on missile development. The two men resigned from Hughes on a Friday and formed Ramo-Wooldridge--later Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge, or TRW--on Wednesday. The following Friday, they secured the first of many Department of Defense contracts. This glove-in-hand relationship between government and industry was to become ingrained in the aerospace culture. While the Cold War ran hot and the space race accelerated, it paid billion-dollar dividends. But when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and the country lost interest in the final frontier, the effects were devastating.

With industry revenues shrinking, Boeing was able to gobble up McDonnell Douglas and Rockwell's aerospace and defense holdings. Lockheed and Martin Marietta joined forces and swallowed part of General Dynamics. Northrop married Grumman and would have merged with Lockheed Martin if federal antitrust lawyers hadn't nixed the sale. As a result, roughly 200,000 jobs--more than half of the aerospace sector--have been eliminated in Southern California over the past decade.

Slowly, belatedly, accommodations are being made. Business journals abound with success stories about laid-off aerospace engineers who've parlayed their skills into unexpected fortunes developing special effects for the movie industry, Internet software, wireless communication and a host of other high-tech goods and services. A metaphor for the reinvention of the local economy? Maybe. Then again, how many overqualified Web-page designers does the world really need?

Nevertheless, fat is being cut as the industry weans itself from the government nipple, and today's aerospace sector harks back to the more flexible, efficient companies of the '50s and '60s. Not too long ago, for example, Hughes took the once-unthinkable step of divesting itself of its substantial missile interests. The reconfigured company--Hughes Electronics--is now the world's largest producer of communications satellites and leading provider of digital satellite television. If the much-ballyhooed commercialization of space actually comes to pass, Southern California will be uniquely positioned to profit from it. Several brash SoCal start-ups are raising money for ingenious rockets designed to service the soaring satellite industry. One of them, the Rotary Rocket Co., is building a reusable launch vehicle that will land like a helicopter with rocket-tipped blades that deploy during descent. Sure, it sounds implausible. But who thought we could go from launching a dog into space to putting a man on the moon in 12 years?

It's no coincidence that Pete Conrad, one of the 10 Americans with lunar visas, started a local company to launch private enterprise into orbit. "Forty years after the Wright brothers flew, a civilian could buy a ticket on an airliner," Conrad said shortly before his death earlier this month. "We're coming up on 40 years of manned spaceflight, and you can't buy a ticket anywhere. Why? Because we've gotten so risk-averse that we can hardly get out of our own way."

Conrad scored low in risk-aversion; he had logged 1,180 hours in space during four space missions and was killed, at 69, while riding a motorcycle. "I see some real opportunities in space," he said. Then he chuckled. "And since I'm not John Glenn, I figure the only way I can get back up there is to build my own rocket."

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