Some months ago, I ran across some information about Boeing giving tours of the old Rocketdyne Santa Susana Field Laboratory. This is the bit of rugged terrain in the hills west of Chatworth that I’ve seen lots of times from the window of an airplane on its way to landing at Burbank. But I didn’t know that they offered tours. So this was a chance to see some aerospace history, as well as an infamous bit of nuclear power history.
Rocketdyne built the engines for nearly all U.S. ballistic missiles, from the earliest ones with engine designs based on the German V-2 rockets, all they way through the Saturn V and on to the Space Shuttle. And most of them were tested on the stands at Santa Susana. They tested engines all the way up to the J-2, which powered the second and third stages of the Saturn V. The F-1 engines for the Saturn V first stage were tested out in the desert at Edwards Air Force Base.
Not all of the test stands are still there, but the small one where they tested the engines for the Atlas missile, and the large one where they tested the J-2 were still there. At the first stand, we got a short talk by a Rocketdyne retiree who was there in the 1950s, and worked on the Atlas project. He told us about how they did the tests, and how they calculated everything on slide rules.
A lot of what goes on at the site now is related to cleanup from the old days. Apparently they used a lot of trichloroethylene to clean the rocket engines between test firings, and a fair amount of it got spilled on the ground. They told us that studies have shown that most of it soaked into the sandstone underneath the site. That’s good in that it kept it from going into the groundwater. But it’s bad in that it makes the solvent essentially impossible to clean up. So there’s that…
The other big piece of sightseeing was the site of the Sodium Reactor Experiment. That’s an infamous bit of nuclear history in that the reactor suffered a partial meltdown in 1959. For something that’s just over the hill from the San Fernando Valley suburbs, that’s a pretty terrifying idea. There’s basically nothing left of it on the site any more. Just a flat plain where the building housing the reactor used to be. In any event, it was interesting to see the site, and it’s appropriate in that I’m signed up to take a tour of the Nevada Test Site when we go to Las Vegas at the end of this month.
So all around, it was an interesting morning.