North Hollywood junkyard: one giant heap for mankind

Times Staff Writer

Mounds of titanium and steel glinted in the afternoon sun, valves and pipes protruding in all directions like half-formed metal organisms.

In one corner of the warehouse was a twin of the Apollo command module engine that brought Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong back from the surface of the moon nearly 40 years ago. Nearby was the second-stage motor for a Saturn V, the most powerful rocket ever used in the U.S. space program.

Jonathan Goff, a 26-year-old rocket engineer, climbed atop a mound of titanium spheres once used to store highly explosive liquid oxygen rocket fuel and scanned the area for used rocket parts. "This is definitely a cool place," he said.

For almost five decades, Norton Sales Inc. in North Hollywood has been collecting the nuts, bolts and heat exchangers from the rockets that helped American astronauts shrug off the steely embrace of gravity.

This is where the bits and pieces of America's space program came to die.

Through most of its history, the space junkyard has served as part museum and part fantasy camp for wealthy collectors willing to plunk down thousands of dollars for a piece of an Apollo rocket. Some of its best customers have also been car customizers looking for cheap, spaceflight-grade hydraulic valves.

Now, after decades of NASA's dominance of spaceflight, private rocketeers are launching their own commercial space industry -- and they are flocking to Norton Sales, junkyard of the stars.

The Apollo command module engine goes for $1.5 million. That J-2 engine for the Saturn V? Yours for $500,000. A Thor rocket engine costs a relatively modest $75,000.

Smaller items attractive

The new generation of rocketeers is less interested in these big-ticket items than in the smaller pieces of scrap and surplus that they can use to build prototypes, often for a dime on the dollar of what it would cost to buy new parts.

"This is like the Holy Grail for a rocket enthusiast without much money," said Tim Pickens, president of Orion Propulsion, a rocket services company in Huntsville, Ala.

Norton has supplied parts to most of the new space rocketeers, including Burt Rutan's Mojave, Calif.-based Scaled Composites, which built the first privately funded manned craft to reach the edge of space, and Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp. in El Segundo, which launched the first privately funded craft to reach low-Earth orbit this month, though it malfunctioned after half an orbit.

From the outside, Norton's 12,000-square-foot warehouse doesn't look much like a hub of the budding commercial spaceflight industry. A misspelled sign on the wall reads: "Space Age Junk and Modern Collectables."

It's standard Valley repair-shop culture with dusty glass counters and autographed pictures of celebrities, including the star of "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." The celebrities aren't generally rocket hobbyists. They come in looking for hydraulic pumps that they adapt to make cars jump up and down like rearing stallions.

A frayed wooden gate leads to the rear of the warehouse, a dimly lighted storehouse as cold as a meat locker. Shelf upon shelf of parts reach high into the air. Rubber hoses wave from head-high shelves, like tube worms swaying around deep-sea cracks in Earth's crust.

Goff and his boss, Dave Masten, ambled past what is known as the "Rocketdyne aisle," because it is filled with parts made by that company. Thousands fell to the floor during the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The aisle is still nearly impassable, with piles of parts 2 feet deep.

A firm's high hopes

Masten heads a Santa Clara, Calif., rocket company called Masten Space Systems, which is trying to build a reusable suborbital launcher capable of carrying small payloads to space.

Masten, 39, is banking on the belief that there are a lot of people who would pay to put things in space if it were cheap enough. Like many of the new breed of rocket jockeys, Masten made his fortune in computer technology. After cashing in his stock options for several million dollars, he was ready to dream again.

"I'm still going to be an astronaut when I grow up," he said.

Masten had previously purchased some parts from Norton Sales. This visit, he and Goff weren't sure what they were buying. "It's dangerous coming to a place like this," Masten said. "It's like shopping on an empty stomach."

Goff opened a drawer full of regulators. "How much are these?" he asked.

"A hundred," replied owner Carlos Guzman, a 40-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who started out as a worker for the original owners.

"Is that all?" Goff replied.

Norton Sales was founded by Sherman Oaks restaurateur Norton J. Holstrom, who began buying up scrap rocket parts in the early 1960s. His timing was perfect.

The United States, stung by the launch of Sputnik in 1957, was turning its industrial might to the space race with the Soviet Union. Many of America's biggest space and defense contractors had operations in and around Los Angeles, and they were turning out rocket motors as fast as Congress could write the checks.

Spending on NASA today accounts for just 0.7% of the federal budget. Back then it was nearly 10 times more.

Surplus dealers sprang up to haul away the excess.

At its height, the firm operated out of six buildings spread across the Los Angeles Basin. Two trucks a day made the rounds of the big contractors, such as Douglas Aircraft Co., Aerojet and Rocketdyne.

Today, few of the space junkmen are left. The decimation of the aerospace industry in Southern California in the 1980s hit the junkers as hard as it hit the engineering community. Norton shrank to a single building on an undistinguished section of Laurel Canyon Boulevard.

In recent years, the company has been renting its futuristic-looking space flotsam to Hollywood set decorators. "Every space movie ever made came out of here," Holstrom said.

When Guzman took over the company several years ago, the financials were uncertain, he said. But President Bush's space initiative, which proposes to return to the moon by 2020, has helped spur new interest in old rocket parts. As NASA busies itself with getting to the moon, it is actively encouraging the growth of a private space industry that could operate in low-Earth orbit. It has already let contracts with the aim of turning the job of servicing the International Space Station to private rocket companies.

Other start-ups, such as billionaire businessman Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, are banking on the fledgling space tourism business.

Guzman said he sells about $700,000 a year in merchandise and that the company is profitable.

Although he admits some might call him a junkman, he's proud that it's very special junk.

He enjoys watching the new space entrepreneurs come in. He calls them "treasure hunters," because they often don't know what they are looking for. They prowl through back aisles until something strikes them.

For these space hot-rodders, a trip to Norton Sales is like "going to the Holy Land," said Pickens of Orion Propulsion.

He estimates he's made 10 trips to Norton. He's bought Atlas vernier rocket engines, which help control roll after liftoff. Altogether, he estimates he has spent $100,000.

It would have cost him 10 times as much to build the parts from scratch, he said.

Although Guzman said his business is doing well with the new commercial space boom, there are still challenges, especially since 9/11.

Tougher export rules prevent him from selling much of his stock overseas. It's no longer easy to obtain old rocket parts, either.

"This stuff is tough to get nowadays," he said.

Even before the attacks on the twin towers in New York, Guzman said he had to be wary. He recalled getting a visit from the FBI after one of Norton's customers put a Peacekeeper missile motor up for sale on EBay.

Where, the agents asked, did you get that particular piece of equipment?

"We bought it from the government," came the reply.

john.johnson@latimes.com

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