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Working at the highest level

Times Staff Writer

It was the weapon of the century, a rocket that could deliver a nuclear warhead 6,000 miles away in 30 minutes and destroy a city, undeterred by any defensive system.

It fundamentally altered war planning and the worldview of two generations, who learned to live with Cold War brinkmanship and the petrifying symmetry of “mutually assured destruction.”

The enormous task of overseeing the development of the intercontinental ballistic missile, a feat President Eisenhower considered more complex than building the atomic bomb, had fallen to two young scientists working out of a former barbershop in Westchester.

They quickly outgrew those digs, moved to secret quarters in a former Catholic church and boys’ school and eventually to a site in Redondo Beach called Space Park. On Tuesday celebrants will gather to honor one of the two scientists, Simon Ramo, and mark the 50th anniversary of the business he co-founded.

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The company, Space Technology Laboratories, eventually became TRW -- the “R” representing Ramo and the “W” his late colleague Dean Wooldridge. Tuesday’s ceremony is meant to celebrate the legacy of the firm and its founders, from the early development of the ICBM through its growth to 100,000 employees and its current work as part of giant defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp.

Ramo -- “Si” to his friends and colleagues -- is considered the father of the ICBM and many other military programs. Five decades later, some remain so sensitive that Pentagon officials say they can’t talk about them.

Wooldridge, who died last fall, retired in 1961 and left the aerospace industry. But Ramo continued leading major space and weapons developments and remains, at 93, an active consultant and advisor to the government and industry.

“There are a lot of names you can remember from the last 50 years or so in history, but few individuals have had more impact on American security and technology prowess than Ramo,” said Loren Thompson, a defense policy analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. “He’s really one of the giants.”

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Ramo was instrumental in designing Space Technology Laboratories’ 100-acre complex in Redondo Beach, which through the years has kept the name Space Park even as ownership changed. A street within the complex will be renamed for Ramo on Tuesday.

Once a popular backdrop for science fiction TV shows, the complex dates to the days when weapons development was considered noble and the field attracted some of the nation’s best minds. The modern architecture served as a model for many thriving aerospace companies in Southern California in the 1960s.

To this day, the structures at Space Park are simply marked E1, for the first engineering building, and R1, R2 and R3 for the earliest research laboratories.

Ramo asked the architect to lay out the buildings to offer every engineer a window with views of gardens and sculptures so they could “think up big things.” Spacecraft manufacturing or laboratory work would take place in the center of the buildings, with offices facing out.

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That vision stood in stark contrast to the rest of the aerospace industry, which typically seated engineers side by side at drafting tables in cavernous, windowless hangars.

“I wanted it to be like a campus because that’s where all the best minds were,” Ramo said as he toured the facility recently. “I wanted them to look forward to coming to work.”

The payoff was dramatic. Space Park would develop some of the nation’s most sophisticated spacecraft, which were used to explore planets, provide space-based telecommunications and, in a twist on the facility’s roots, detect possible ICBM launches by the then-Soviet Union.

Space Park also helped propel Southern California to the forefront of U.S. space technology and weapons design. Much of the nation’s military and civil spacecraft development remains centered in the region.

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“The place to be if you wanted to be in aerospace was STL,” said Edsel D. Dunford, who went to work for Ramo in 1964 and eventually became general manager of TRW’s space and technology group.

“It was a very nice, collegial environment,” Dunford said. Ramo “hired really good people and gave them the opportunity to excel.”

Space Park’s origins were modest. A disagreement with their boss, Howard Hughes, prompted Ramo and Wooldridge to walk out of his famed aviation shop in 1953 and start their own company.

The young scientists, starting Ramo-Wooldridge Corp. in the former barbershop with only a secretary and an administrator, pulled out the barber chairs and used a card table as a desk. They rented their only typewriter.

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About the same time, the Pentagon became alarmed by intelligence reports that the Soviets were developing ballistic missiles that could reach the U.S. For years, planners had based their strategy on defending against a possible attack by Soviet jets carrying nuclear bombs.

Having been on their own for less than a year, Ramo and Wooldridge got a call from Eisenhower. He told them that developing the ICBM was “a research program of the highest national priority, second to no other,” as Ramo remembers the president’s words.

In doing so, Eisenhower had bypassed corporate giants such as IBM and AT&T; to award the nation’s largest military technology program to two relative unknowns.

It was a controversial move, but inside the Pentagon, Ramo and Wooldridge were seen as the top candidates. At Hughes Aircraft Co., they had developed an electronic fire-control system, used to direct weapons, that became a standard for Air Force fighter aircraft. They had an established record working at the leading edge of the new field of electronic warfare and guidance systems.

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“Only the president and a few members of Congress knew about it,” Ramo recalled. “The idea was to do things as fast as possible, so we had to bypass bureaucracy.”

Operating in secrecy, Ramo and Wooldridge moved the ICBM operations to a former Catholic church in Inglewood, where the pair had to pull out the pews and the urinals in the bathrooms to make room for their research.

When working there, Air Force officials wore civilian clothes, which prompted local merchants to wonder why so many were cashing their government checks at their stores.

In 1957, within three years of Eisenhower’s call to develop the ICBM, the Air Force successfully launched a Thor missile that flew 1,300 miles downrange from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

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“It’s impossible today to do what we did with the ICBM program,” Ramo said.

The celebration would be short-lived, however. The space race began as the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the Earth.

As the U.S. played catch-up, Ramo’s company, now known as Space Technology Laboratories, launched rockets carrying the first U.S. passengers -- white mice -- to test physiological responses to spaceflight. The company built the early satellite Pioneer I and went on to build more than 195 spacecraft and 300 space-borne sensors and scientific instruments.

It has been more than a quarter-century since Ramo worked at Space Park, but he visits regularly. He meets monthly to discuss long-range planning with Alexis Livanos, who oversees the complex for Century City-based Northrop, which acquired TRW in 2002.

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Well into his 10th decade, Ramo is considered one of the industry’s most influential thinkers. These days, he remains focused on defense, even though the nation’s adversaries have changed dramatically.

Much as during the Cold War, Ramo believes protecting the U.S. from attack will be a growth industry. Although the challenge will be “terribly difficult,” he said, “there are so many things we can do about it” -- namely, investing in technology to find the crucial solutions.

peter.pae@latimes.com


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