The roar always sounded loudest on hot summer nights, rumbling through the west San Fernando Valley for as long as 90 seconds. Sleeping with the windows open, residents of such Los Angeles neighborhoods as Canoga Park and Chatsworth often awakened to these explosions emanating from the Simi Hills, the modest mountain range along the Valley’s northwest corner.
During the 1950s and ’60s, the noise would shake newcomers to the fast-growing suburbs from their sleep as surely as an earthquake might. For longtime residents, the thunder was only a brief disruption. Just another night up on the Hill, the local nickname for the 2,850-acre Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a hidden Cold War–era installation for aerospace test operations and nuclear power research.
“You would hear those engines rip out, then see the hills around Chatsworth glowing at night,” says Edwin C. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory, whose family moved to the Valley when he was in junior high school. “It was a significant and considerable orange, fiery glow on the mountains, a phenomenon of the neighborhood.”
Beginning in 1948, NASA conducted more than 17,000 rocket engine firings at four test areas at the site. Engines for every U.S. launch system—starting with the Mercury-Redstone that carried the earliest American astronauts and ending with the space shuttle program—were first ignited on the vertical test stands here, of which six are still standing. The open-framed metal structures resemble offshore oil-drilling rigs; the largest is about 13 stories tall.
It’s no mystery: To reach the moon, you first have to escape the earth. And to do that, the Apollo program conceived the Saturn V, which even in the age of SpaceX remains the tallest, most powerful rocket ever built. When the Apollo 11 astronauts blasted off for the moon 50 years ago this summer, they rode aboard this 363-foot-tall rocket, with J-2 engines tested at the Santa Susana lab powering the second and third stages. Those engines? Built by West Valley aerospace contractor Rocketdyne.
After space shuttle testing at the site ended in 1988, engine firings became less frequent before ceasing in 2006. The stands remain in place, and other than the launchpads at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, they are the most significant surviving structures from the heyday of the U.S. space program. They are also slowly deteriorating. Within the next year, NASA hopes to make a decision: whether to demolish or preserve them.
The test stands’ fate is part of a greater uncertainty surrounding the field lab. In addition to the property’s aerospace history, it serves as a vital Southern California wildlife corridor and shelters a Native American archaeoastronomy site that’s hundreds of years old. Some locals hope the land will become a national monument after a long-delayed cleanup of toxic soil and groundwater that would make the area safe enough for recreational purposes.
There are other residents who contend that decades of chemical and radiological contamination (from rocket testing and the 1959 partial meltdown of one of the nuclear reactors that operated at the lab) have caused cancers in surrounding communities, including rare pediatric cancers. They’re pushing for a more complete cleanup to minimize the threat.
After President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous 1962 “We choose to go to the Moon” speech, the U.S. needed fewer than seven years to advance from the Mercury program’s hours-long orbital missions to rockets that could transport astronauts onto the moon. But it has already been 12 years since Boeing, NASA, and the U.S. Department of Energy signed a consent order with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control to clean the lab site. Boeing, which in 1996 bought the defense and aerospace division of Rockwell International (including Rocketdyne), owns 2,400 acres at the lab, including land leased by the DOE. (NASA owns the other 450 acres.) A 2017 deadline for completion of the work has come and gone, and the distrust between the lab’s operators and many residents in the surrounding communities has a toxicity all its own.
Though they rise to only around 2,400 feet, the Simi Hills boast an impressive, if eclectic, environmental and cultural history. The 96,949-acre Woolsey Fire, the most destructive wildfire in Los Angeles–area history, began here last November. Some allege that the lab site’s 1959 meltdown was the worst in U.S. history. And it’s safe to say that no other mountains can claim a legacy that includes Wernher von Braun, John Ford, and Charles Manson.
The lab sits near the junction of the Simi Hills and the larger Santa Susana Mountains. The Chatsworth Formation, an extensive area of sandstone outcroppings, tapers and forms an isthmus on the land that connects these ranges. “The Santa Susana Field Lab is part of the most important habitat linkage in California,” says John Luker II, president of Save Chatsworth and a partner in Sky Valley Volunteers, which is conducting restoration projects at the lab. “All of the genetic diversity that travels from the Santa Susana Mountains into the Santa Monica Mountains passes through this facility. Mountain lions, mule deer, bobcats, raccoons, bears—anything that’s big and moves comes through this very narrow, mile-wide corridor.”
The lab developed in the late 1940s as the U.S. accelerated its Cold War missile development. Early engine testing was haphazard. North American Aviation, the original parent company of Rocketdyne, conducted test firings in its Inglewood parking lot. In the interest of both public safety and greater secrecy, a more secluded location was needed.
Long before residential development filled the San Fernando and Simi Valleys, where 500,000 people now live within 10 miles of the lab, the site was largely isolated from populated areas. Its complex arrangement of sandstone slabs formed sheltered bowls that created a visual shield and partly contained the roar of engines. These rocks also shaped popular impressions of the West. Hollywood frequently used the formations: director Ford built the garrison for his 1948 cavalry epic Fort Apache among the boulders at the Corriganville Movie Ranch, a few miles from the lab; The Lone Ranger and Bonanza shot scenes at nearby Spahn Ranch, which the Manson family later used as its compound at the time of the Tate-LaBianca murders (see “Manson Inc.,” page 22).
There’s authentic history here, too. The Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach, which connected Los Angeles and San Francisco, followed a route through craggy Santa Susana Pass, and three Native American cultural groups—the Chumash, the Tongva, and the Tataviam—converged in these hills. Tribal art roughly a millennium old survives in alcoves and small caves.
In the predawn of the winter solstice in December 1979, years after he first learned of the test site, Ed Krupp finally visited the lab to see a remarkable Chumash painted rock shelter in an area called Burro Flats. Researchers speculated that the cave, on the other side of a ridge from the Apollo test stands, might have been used in ancient winter solstice rituals.
Krupp dodged thickets of poison oak and walked past sheds marked “Explosive” before reaching the cave. Then he and a group of fellow astronomers waited. Paintings of geometric figures and unidentifiable creatures covered the walls, which were well protected by an overhang. Krupp says that they then observed a “light-and-shadow effect” as sunlight passed through a gap in the rock and an arrowhead-shaped beam illuminated a set of concentric rings.
“It seemed intended,” he says. “At least to the eye and wishful thinking, it certainly seemed like a conscious choice by the people who did the painting.”
Four decades later, bound for the rocket test stands near the cave paintings, NASA project director Peter Zorba drives through the agency’s installation, where an ongoing demolition project has removed obsolete structures and thousands of tons of concrete, steel, and cement. Gone are a host of low-slung office and maintenance buildings that gave the complex a generic look out of a 1950s sci-fi movie. If you wanted to conduct a space alien autopsy, this could have been your place.
The land has greened with winter rains, but the charred stems of shrubs burned in the Woolsey Fire poke through the new growth. Zorba pulls up to the lab’s oldest surviving test stands, at the Alfa site. Rising above the surrounding sandstone outcrops, the structures are as ugly as they are majestic, a kind of space-age steampunk.
The Alfa stands, used for intercontinental ballistic missile research by the U.S. Air Force and for Mercury rocket development, are based on designs Wernher von Braun originally developed for Nazi Germany’s V-2 rocket. Coveting the technology, the U.S. allowed von Braun, an SS officer who used concentration camp laborers, to settle in this country after World War II, along with scores of other German rocket scientists.
The Coca site’s stands, where Apollo and space shuttle testing took place, are about twice as large as the Alfa structures. Walk inside the retractable first level, nicknamed “the dance floor,” then gaze up at the assembly, where the rocket engines were bolted down during firings; it’s an overwhelming lattice of girders, beams, stairways, pipes, and tubes. There are corroded sinks marked by signs that read “Eye Bath” and instrument panels with multiple analog dials identified by small, cryptic nameplates: “Dome Press Gage #2” and “Sta. R GHE Oxid. Purge.” Patches of rust are everywhere.
Through the floor’s grates, you can peer down into the concrete “flame bucket,” designed to deflect the rockets’ fiery exhaust away from the test stands. The site’s bedrock served as an anchor for the structure, and the natural drainage acted as a spillway. “This is a great illustration of why this area was selected,” says Zorba. “It gave the United States government a head start, and they were able to use the geology and the rock outcrops for natural revetments and drainages. They didn’t have to spend millions of dollars and millions of hours constructing drainage and revetments.”
A combination of kerosene and liquid oxygen powered the liquid-fueled rockets. Technicians used trichloroethylene (TCE), a known human carcinogen, to flush vapor and kerosene deposits before and after test firings to minimize the risk of explosions. According to NASA, an estimated 500,000 gallons of TCE ran “freely onto the ground” or into unlined ponds before the construction of catch pans to contain the chemicals in 1961.
“The procedures evolved,” says Zorba. “What we know today is much more informed about the impacts of some of the things that they were doing. But they were driven to meet that challenge of the space race and the Cold War. They were trying to make progress and stay ahead of the Soviets. It was a race.”
When the Woolsey Fire burned through much of the lab site, it raised new concerns about the dangers of radioactive and chemical contamination. Department of Toxic Substances Control studies concluded that sampling “showed no radiation levels above background levels, and no elevated levels of hazardous compounds other than those normally present after a wildfire.” Longtime advocates for a full cleanup of the site greeted that statement with skepticism, if not outright derision, while Kim Kardashian West, who lives nearby in Hidden Hills, brought new attention to the lab when she tweeted that she was “Shocked & furious” about potentially radioactive smoke from the fire.
If there’s little disagreement about the need for a cleanup at the lab, discussions about the nature of the health threat and how best to restore the land and protect local residents expose a sharp divide between state regulators and the responsible parties, as well as nearby residents.
The 2007 consent order required Boeing, NASA, and the DOE to clean up their respective properties to a “risk-based” standard that would be determined by the future use of the land. Soon after, California Senate Bill 990 mandated a cleanup to a more specific standard, either suburban residential or agricultural, but in 2009, Boeing sued to block that legislation, and in 2011, the suit was successful.
So now Boeing is following the original order, and in 2017 it agreed to establish a conservation easement with the North American Land Trust that would preserve the land as open space. Boeing says that its plan would make the acreage safe for recreation and that the company would “be fully protective of human health and the environment, consistent with the site’s future as undeveloped open space habitat.”
NASA and the DOE, however, are bound by a second consent order they signed in 2010 as the Boeing lawsuit moved through the courts. The agencies agreed that they would meet the more stringent background standard, which, according to the consent order, would return the land to its theoretical natural state by 2017—a deadline that has obviously passed.
Several studies have concluded that while it’s impossible to rule out the prospect that lab contamination has caused cancers, available data doesn’t reveal evidence of increased health risks. Activists cite epidemiological research showing elevated cancer rates, as well as clusters of unusual cancers in children living in the vicinity, including neuroblastoma and aggressive forms of leukemia. The linkages, however, are hard to prove.
“In terms of these pediatric cancers, it’s extremely difficult to try to say with any sort of certainty that this person’s cancer came from this person’s place,” says Denise Duf-field, associate director of Physicians for Social Responsibility–Los Angeles. “The fact of the matter is that they are over the average for childhood cancers, for very rare childhood cancers, in the area. For several of the parents, their doctors have said that this is environmental. Two people I know were asked, ‘When were you exposed to radiation?’ ”
This past March, NASA’s Office of Inspector General Office of Audits issued a report recommending that it be allowed to clean its soil to the recreational level, citing estimated costs approaching $500 million and the roughly 25 years it could take to achieve the background standard. NASA argues that the agency faces more pressing environmental demands elsewhere in the county and that a recreational cleanup would save $377 million and require only four years to complete. The state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control responded in a letter that it remains committed to holding NASA accountable to the terms of the 2010 agreement.
According to the report, the estimated 100,000 truck trips it would take to haul contaminated dirt out and bring backfill soil in would result in environmental damage both on the property and in surrounding communities. NASA claims that “if the site is remediated to Background level, the ecosystem may never fully recover to its current state, and large areas of habitat will be destroyed.” In addition, the report says that it “makes little sense” to have the NASA and Boeing acreage cleaned at different levels because of the prospect of cross-contamination. Duffield doesn’t buy it. “They’re creating this very Orwellian, or Trumpian, if you will, situation,” she says. “Trump’s talking about windmills giving people cancer, and here we’re talking about cleaning up contamination being more dangerous than leaving the contamination there. It’s pretty surreal to hear environmental arguments against the cleanup after decades of so terribly defiling this environment.”
The report also says that decision delays regarding the test stands will add nearly $20 million to the cost of either preservation or demolition. The stands themselves pose their own contamination dangers, including lead paint, asbestos, and fluids and fuels that need to be drained from lines.
Compared with the health of local residents, the test stands’ fate is a secondary issue. But separate from the pressing need to begin the cleanup, this hidden pocket of Southern California has a global significance that’s often overshadowed by the lab’s environmental notoriety.
Since his first visit in 1979, Krupp has returned to Burro Flats around 40 times, but his wonder has never ebbed, even as he recognizes the need to eliminate the toxic hangover of the country’s space program. This is, says Krupp, a place where prehistoric people connected with the sky, just a short distance from where, hundreds of years later, humans mastered technologies that defied gravity and allowed them to escape Earth.
“There is a thematic heritage to this piece of land that gives it meaning,” he says. “I obviously was always allied with the remnants, particularly the test stands there. These are artifacts of an extraordinary aspect of Earth.
“People, I think, diminish this to the human scale and don’t often think that over four and a half billion years, the planet Earth evolved in such a way that there were creatures moving around on its surface that developed the means to leave the planet and put their feet on another world. It’s the only place in the universe, that we know of at this moment, where that happened. There could be others. But it happened right here.”
Matt Jaffe writes about the environment and culture of California and the Southwest. His books include The Santa Monica Mountains: Range on the Edge.