Cold War Relics: Santa Susana

Test stands at Santa Susana Field Laboratory. Photo by Suzanne Guldimann

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory is the largest—and most controversial—local relic of the space race and the Cold War, but it isn’t the only one. It’s been in the news recently, because it was excluded from the boundaries of the new Rim of the Valley expansion proposal but if the Rim is approved, the new park will be home to an unprecedented range of other sites connected with that era.

The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA) is already home to space and technology history. While the rocket tests that launched NASA’s Mercury and Apollo programs into space were underway at Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a group of scientists at Hughes Research Laboratory in Malibu were racing to develop the laser. 

A plaque at the lab states: “On this site in May 1960, Theodore Maiman built and operated the first laser. A number of teams around the world were trying to construct this theoretically anticipated device from different materials. Maiman’s was based on a ruby rod optically pumped by a flash lamp.”

If inventing what has been described as a transformative technology in the 20th century wasn’t enough, the lab also produced the first atomic clock the same year, and went on to pioneer satellite communications. 

Unlike the Santa Susana lab, where the future is now the past, the Hughes lab is still active, and new technology continues to be developed on site.

Just up the coast at Solstice Canyon there’s another space age site. Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge (TRW) rented 10 acres on the Roberts family ranch from 1961-1973. According to the National Park Service (NPS), which now owns the site, the location was used to develop “supersensitive magnetometers to study the magnetic fields in space and to test satellite equipment for space missions.” NASA’s Pioneer space exploration satellites, including the Pioneer 12 Venus orbiter launched in 1978, reportedly utilized technology originally tested in Solstice Canyon.

“Solstice Canyon was one of only three places in the world chosen to conduct such tests, due to the lack of man-made or natural disturbances,” the NPS brochure states. 

The TRW buildings burned during wildfires in 1996 and again in 2007. The only thing left is an abandoned parking lot and the footprint of the curious round structure that housed the test equipment, but the name survives in TRW Loop Trail.

In the 1950s, Point Dume narrowly avoided becoming a Nike missile base. The Point, commandeered during WW II and used for a top secret early warning air defense radar installation, was reportedly on the shortlist for a nuclear base in the early 1950s. Ultimately, the government opted instead for the top of Las Flores Canyon. 

What is now Fire Camp 8, the fire department’s first line of defense for Topanga-area wildfires, was once equipped with Nike-Ajax supersonic anti-aircraft missiles. A nearby Nike site, located at San Vicente Mountain Park above Encino, is also part of the SMMNRA and offers hikers an up-close look at Cold War era technology. 

From the early 1950s to the early 1970s, there were eight anti-aircraft missile sites in the mountains around Los Angeles. They were there not so much to protect the civilian population, but to guard important military and industrial facilities like the Santa Susana Field Lab, from Soviet attack.

With the exception of the Hughes Laboratory, all of these Cold War and space race-era sites have been scrapped or repurposed, but in the foothills of a mountain range on the opposite side of the Los Angeles basin, there’s another key site that is still active. 

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, JPL, continues to push the boundaries of space exploration. The lab’s website describes it as, “the leading U.S. center for robotic exploration of the solar system, [with] 19 spacecraft and 10 major instruments carrying out planetary, earth science and space-based astronomy missions. 

If the Rim of Valley becomes a reality, JPL will be within the same park boundary as the Hughes Lab and the abandoned TRW and Nike missile sites. Add the Santa Susana Field Lab to the list, even if it is merely adjacent to the expanded park and not officially within its boundaries, and the new Rim of the Valley, in addition to preserving natural resources and offering expanded recreational opportunities, will be a kind of space park, one that preserves both America’s Cold War-era space race and looks to its future.


Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at

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