If the U.S. goes forward with a bold scheme to build a permanent base on the moon and send astronauts to Mars, an economic afterburner could kick in for Southern California’s aerospace industry.
With the world’s largest concentration of space firms, the Southland probably would be one of the biggest beneficiaries of any effort by the Bush administration to explore the moon and the Red Planet, analysts and economists said Friday.
They noted how the Apollo program transformed the region into a space powerhouse in the 1960s, and key programs continue to be carried out here.
“It won’t be too surprising if there is a disproportionate benefit for the area,” said Steven Aftergood, an analyst for the Federation of American Scientists.
The aerospace industry is abuzz with reports that President Bush will unveil a space initiative next week for manned missions -- a proposal that could mean a 5% hike in NASA’s annual $15-billion budget. There are, however, serious doubts about whether Congress will support such an effort.
According to the California Space Authority, space companies in the state generated $24.2 billion in revenues in 2002, or nearly 30% of the global space market. All told, nearly 100,000 Californians work in the space industry.
Most aerospace companies declined to assess the potential effect of the president’s plan until more details were released. “Until then it would be really speculative,” said Ed Memi, spokesman for Boeing Co.'s NASA Systems unit.
Boeing remains the largest private employer in the region, with 36,000 workers, and has space operations scattered throughout the area. They include its Rocketdyne rocket engine unit in Canoga Park, its military and commercial satellite assembly operation in El Segundo and a space communications development center in Anaheim.
Other companies deeply involved in space programs for NASA and the Pentagon said any new space campaign would provide a big lift. Northrop Grumman Corp. has about 9,000 engineers at the former TRW space unit in Redondo Beach, where it makes spy satellites, NASA research satellites and space telescopes.
“If indeed there is a return to manned space effort, I suspect we will be heavily involved,” said Northrop spokesman Randy Belote.
For all the promise of the Bush program, industry officials and economists agreed that it was not likely to match the blank-check spending that occurred during the race to the moon in the 1960s.
Ultimately, the Apollo program cost $25 billion -- about $150 billion in today’s dollars -- and employed 400,000 workers at 20,000 companies.
Southern California firms, many of them now merged into other companies, were at the vanguard of this major technological feat.
North American Rockwell’s Downey plant designed the Apollo capsule, and Rocketdyne -- then Rockwell-owned -- made rocket engines. Grumman Aircraft built the lunar landing craft, and TRW and Douglas Aircraft were major contractors as well.
“We really had no constraint on budgets. If we had to do something, if there was a schedule to meet, we had the money to do it,” said Jack Cherne, a retired TRW executive who oversaw development of the lunar lander engine. “That, I’m sure, will not happen today.”
Back then, aerospace engineers relied on desktop calculators and slide rules to do most computations. Computers were in short supply, and engineers had to wait for their payroll departments to finish processing their checks before getting time on mainframes to run test rocket trajectory data with keypunch cards.
Engineers borrowed technology from a variety of sources -- even a wiring system found in drive-in movie theaters -- in the Apollo project. They also mastered a dangerous new fuel, liquid hydrogen, to construct the giant Saturn V rocket that helped propel Apollo 11, with Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins aboard, to the moon in July 1969.
After the public’s interest in the space flights waned, NASA’s budget shrank and the aerospace industry changed. McDonnell married Douglas; Rockwell bought North American. Later, Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas and took over Rockwell’s aerospace business. Northrop Grumman acquired TRW.
The aerospace industry has seen a resurgence of sorts since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and subsequent military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Defense spending has grown sharply and is expected to continue to grow for the foreseeable future.
The region is still home to key space agencies, including the Space and Missile Systems Center, the space contracting arm for the Air Force in El Segundo, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and Aerospace Corp., a quasi-government organization that supports many of the nation’s military space programs in El Segundo.
“If Bush pushes forward with the initiative, it’s going to have significant economic impact for Southern California,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. “The brains are here.”