Reaching for the Moon

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We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

—President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962

Fifty years ago, we went to the moon.

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to walk on the lunar surface, see the earth rise beyond the horizon of an alien world. Armstrong proclaimed it to be one giant leap for mankind. Apollo 11 was the first of six missions that landed astronauts on the moon, but the leap—though great—was not enough to carry us into that bright space-age future of moon bases, space stations, and manned planetary exploration.

For the generation that grew up during the space race, a future in space seemed assured. Children dreamed of being astronauts, read comic books and paperbacks full of rocket ships, thrilled to Lost in Space, or dreamed of going boldly where no one had gone before, like the crew of Enterprise on Star Trek. By the time the movie Star Wars debuted in 1977, the future was already receding. This was a fairytale set a long time ago in a galaxy far away, not a future within grasp.

Part of the problem has always been the cost. Kennedy acknowledged that in his famous 1962 speech that launched the moon race:

“This is a breathtaking pace, and such a pace cannot help but create new ills as it dispels old, new ignorance, new problems, new dangers. Surely the opening vistas of space promise high costs and hardships, as well as high reward.”

The costs were high, and no one knows that better than the scientists, engineers, technicians and workers who built and tested the hardware that took us to the moon. Many of them lived and worked right here, just down the road from Topanga Canyon.


The space race grew out of World War II and became one of the major battles of the Cold War. Southern California’s WW II aviation and weapons system companies expanded from aircraft into spacecraft in the 1950s. Los Angeles was a key center for aeronautics during the war. Companies like McDonald Douglas, in Long Beach, and Hughes Aircraft, in El Segundo, began looking to space after the war, but it was North American Aviation (NAA) that powered the space race.

NAA engineered and built historic aircraft like the P-51 Mustang fighter and the B-25 Mitchell Bomber during the war. The company was given a Defense Department contract after the war to reverse engineer the German V-2 missile and develop new weapons for the U.S. government. 

In his book Rocketdyne: Powering Humans into Space, historian and former Rocketdyne engineer Robert Kramer says NAA “burst on the scene like a shooting star,” rapidly overtaking the work of the only other two liquid propellant rocket companies in the U.S.

NAA’s goal was to develop long-range guided missiles, but the company’s research ultimately enabled the U.S. to reach the moon. In 1955, NAA created a new subsidiary, Rocketdyne, which would build not only missiles, but the Apollo Command and Service Module—the critically important second stage of the Saturn V rocket that carried the astronauts to the moon. Much of the research and development took place at the company’s city-sized Canoga Park facility, and at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory at the far end of the San Fernando Valley.

NAA acquired the land and began testing liquid fuel rocket engines there in 1948. In 1954, the company acquired 56 acres on the corner of Canoga and Vanowen to house its new Rocketdyne division. The site was given the wildly creative name, “Air Force Plant No. 56.” It rapidly became the government’s main supplier of rocket engines. 

Using rockets to reach space was already a goal, but the space race began in earnest in 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched the satellite Sputnik into orbit. The U.S. government quickly established NASA and scrambled to develop a dedicated space exploration program.

Rocketdyne built the A-7 engine that put the first U.S. satellite into orbit in 1958.

 In 1961, a Rocketdyne engine took Alan Shepherd, the first U.S astronaut, into space, hot on the heels of Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, the first human being to officially travel in space. 

By 1965, at the height of the space race, Rocketdyne employed 65,000 people. Many Topanga Canyon residents in the 1950s and 1960s worked at Rocketdyne. The canyon experienced a building boom during that period as the influx of engineers and scientists from all over the county sought a place to live and raise their families.

Rocketdyne continued to grow and thrive. It merged with the Rockwell Corporation in 1966, and became Rockwell International in 1973, with Rocketdyne as its flagship. 

Rocketdyne built the rockets that powered Mercury, Apollo, and the Space Shuttle programs. Many of the rockets used to take astronauts into space from the 1950s to the Shuttle program in the 1980s were tested at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory. Longtime Topanga residents recall seeing the sky turn orange and feeling the earth shake when rockets were tested at the field lab from as far away from the test site as the Topanga summit.


As long as there was a Soviet Union to compete against, space exploration thrived, but cracks began to appear. On January 28, 1986, the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded shortly after launch, killing all seven astronauts on board. The shuttle was launched despite warnings from the rocket engineers expressing concern over the cold weather conditions on the day of the launch.

The disaster had a chilling effect on the space program.

“The future doesn’t belong to the faint-hearted. It belongs to the brave,” President Ronald Reagan said in response to the disaster. “The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.” 

We didn’t follow them. The same year as the Challenger disaster, the National Commission on Space released a glossy report entitled, “Pioneering the Space Frontier.” It was filled with illustrations of lunar colonies, Mars explorers, and thriving cities built from modular space stations high above the earth, but the vision was as much a fairytale as the one projected on the big screen involving Jedi Knights and Sith Lords.

“Looking to the future, we are confident that the next century will see pioneering men and women from many nations working and living throughout the inner Solar System,” the report stated. “Space travel will be as safe and inexpensive for our grandchildren as jet travel is for us.”

We weren’t, however, really going back to the moon anytime soon, and everyone knew it, including the authors of the report.

Rockwell International began downsizing in the 1980s. Employees at its Canoga Park facility were let go. Boeing purchased Rocketdyne in 1996 and sold it to Pratt and Whitney in 2005. The only part Boeing kept was the field lab. They may have wished they hadn’t.

Those “new costs and dangers” Kennedy spoke of in his famous speech had come home to roost. 

Around 30,000 rocket tests were conducted at the field lab. The groundwater at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory and Rocketdyne’s Canoga Park facility was contaminated with a potentially deadly mix of exotic chemicals used for rocket fuel and for flushing the rocket engines. The field lab was also contaminated with chemicals disposed of in open burn pits, including liquid sodium, and with radiation from a series of nuclear reactor accidents, including the 1959 partial core meltdown which was one of the most serious nuclear accidents in U.S. history.

In-flight accidents killed 18 astronauts from the start of the space program in the 1950s to 2018, in four separate incidents. The number of cancer fatalities connected to the field lab contamination is not verified but in October 2006, the independent Santa Susana Field Laboratory Advisory Panel estimated that there had been 260 cancer-related deaths so far. 

The report found that the 1959 meltdown released more than 458 times the amount of radioactivity released by the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania in 1979. While the reactor was smaller, it lacked a concrete containment structure, which caused the direct release of radiation into the environment.

According to Boeing, much of the radioactive contamination has now been removed, but the toxins in the water will take not years but centuries to fully mitigate. 


NASA, continuing to partner with many of the original aerospace companies, has conducted on ongoing series of highly successful unmanned space exploration missions with a focus on science and international cooperation, but the space race today is largely in the hands of private companies, like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, who have commercial space development in mind. 

To mark the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, the Trump Administration released ambitious plans this month to return to the moon, but without adequate funding, that vision is unlikely to be realized, and the budget for all space exploration, manned and robotic, continues to be a target of budget cuts and staff reductions.

In May, the White House requested an extra $1.6 billion for the first manned trip to the moon since 1972, but the Trump Administration has also suggested slashing the NASA budget for 2020 by half a billion. The price tag for the mission is estimated at $20 to $30 billion, and the President has indicated that he is relying on private companies to make up the shortfall.  

“I’ve always said that rich guys seem to like rockets,” Trump told the National Space Council in 2018, when he announced his administration’s plans for America’s future in space.

“So, all of those rich guys that are dying for our real estate to launch their rockets, we won’t charge you too much. Just go ahead. If you beat us to Mars, we’ll be very happy, and you’ll be even more famous.”

While space tourism is expected to become a reality in the next few years, it seems unlikely that Trump’s 2024 moon goal will be met. Some critics question the wisdom of continuing to pursue manned space exploration, especially to Mars, which comes at a much higher cost than robotic missions. The privately funded approach favored by Trump has also raised concerns that the civilian space program at the heart of NASA could be co-opted for space exploitation rather than exploration, a concern that Kennedy addressed in his speech: “…I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours…. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again.

In 1962, Kennedy concluded his speech launching the Apollo program by comparing the challenge of space exploration to that of climbing a mountain, and stressing unity: “Space is there, and we’re going to climb it,” he said. “The moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there.”

For now, that future remains out of reach.

In November 1979, author Ray Bradbury wrote a poem to commemorate the success of NASA’s Mariner 9 Mars probe. Today, it’s a haunting lament for a still unrealized tomorrow. 

The fence we walked between the years

Did balance us serene

It was a place half in the sky where

In the green of leaf and promising of peach

We’d reach our hands to touch and almost touch the sky

If we could reach and touch, we said,

‘Twould teach us, not to, never to, be dead

We ached and almost touched that stuff;

Our reach was never quite enough.

If only we had taller been

And touched God’s cuff, His hem,

We would not have to go with them

Who’ve gone before,

Who, short as us, stood as they could stand

And hoped by stretching tall that they might keep their land

Their home, their hearth, their flesh and soul.

But they, like us, were standing in a hole

 O, Thomas, will a Race one day stand really tall

Across the Void, across the Universe and all?

And, measured out with rocket fire,

At last put Adam’s finger forth

As on the Sistine Ceiling,

And God’s hand come down the other way

To measure man and find him Good

And Gift him with Forever’s Day?

I work for that 

Short man, Large dream

I send my rockets forth between my ears

Hoping an inch of Good is worth a pound of years

Aching to hear a voice cry back along the universal mall:

We’ve reached Alpha Centauri!

We’re tall, O God, we’re tall!

—Ray Bradbury


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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