This once classified & still contaminated site helped our country fight wars, propelled us into space and is still considered to be the home of the worst nuclear disaster in American history.
Rocketdyne was an American rocket engine design and production company. Originally part of North American Aviation, it was later part of Rockwell International, then Boeing.
After Rocketdyne was established as a separate division by North American Aviation in 1955, it used the Santa Susana Field Laboratory for tests and was originally headquartered on 56 acres in Canoga Park, near Los Angeles, CA. During 1956, Rocketdyne delivered its first Atlas, Thor and Jupiter engines, and a Redstone engine sent a Jupiter C rocket to an unprecedented altitude of 682 miles.
The division began as North American’s Technical Research Laboratory after World War II to develop guided missiles and to test Germany’s V-2 missile at the company’s Los Angeles facility. This experience helped North America win the contract to build the Navaho intercontinental supersonic cruise missile for the U.S. Air Force.
Rocketdyne began work on the engine for the North American Test Instrumentation Vehicle (NATIV) to gather technical and engineering data for the Navaho. This required the acquisition of a remote test site, so a secluded area in California’s Santa Susana Mountains became the country’s first liquid-propellant high-thrust rocket engine test facility.
During continued downsizing in the 1980s and ’90s, Rockwell International shed several parts of the former North American Rockwell corporation. The aerospace entities of Rockwell International, including the former NAA and Rocketdyne, were sold to Boeing in 1996. Rocketdyne became part of Boeing’s Defense division.
After going through security, we boarded a bus…
…that dropped us off at a trailer/conference room where we were introduced to our Boeing engineer tour guides and watched an old 1954 movie about the site narrated by Edward R. Murrow.
The site was mainly used for the testing and development of liquid-propellant rocket engines for the United States space program from 1949 to 2006, nuclear reactors from 1953 to 1980 and the operation of a U.S. government-sponsored liquid metals research center from 1966 to 1998.
It’s only recently that everything has become declassified and is allowed to be photographed.
Due to liability issues and the fact that the place is still highly contaminated and in the process of still being cleaned up, most of the tour is viewed from within the bus.
Thankfully, they do allow you to get out at a few places along the way.
Our first stop was to explore the two remaining ALFA test stands.
Inactive Lox, what?
Inside the electrical room that once powered the site.
The tainted name known as Rocketdyne.
Will you choose the green or the red button?
ALFA 1 platform overlooking Area 4.
ALFA 3 is that you?
ALFA 1 is huge.
Our tour guide Bill has worked for Boeing over 30+ years, most of them at this site.
Check yourself before you step yourself.
You know, for when those nasty little spills happen.
What a Bravo component hot fire test looked like in 1960.
MA-5 engine system hot firing in 1972 using the ALFA 1 testing platform.
In case you forget the number.
Hot fire testing pit.
A vast 10 story underground facility still lies beneath this location.
Most of the 2,668-acres of land has already been preserved as open space for future use as a park but due to contamination and ongoing cleanup efforts it remains off limits to the public.
Once cleanup is completed, they plan to turn it over to a land management organization (NPS, SMMC) who would be responsible for managing the land for public use.
Mercury contaminated soil lies beneath this black area, so watch your step.
A nuclear energy R&D facility owned by the Department of Energy, and operated by Rocketdyne/Boeing, involved in applying nuclear technologies related to space flight, defense programs, and liquid metal reactors, in addition to solar energy and remediation technologies. The DOE facility is located on 90 acres within Rocketdyne’s 2,668 acre rocket field test facility. Nearby Moorpark claims to be the first community lit by commercial nuclear power from a plant at this facility.
Throughout the years, approximately ten low-power nuclear reactors operated at SSFL, in addition to several “critical facilities”: a sodium burn pit in which sodium-coated objects were burned in an open pit; a plutonium fuel fabrication facility; a uranium carbide fuel fabrication facility; and the purportedly largest “Hot Lab” facility in the United States at the time. This gentlemen who works at JPL and was along for the tour didn’t believe the soil we were standing on was as clean as they said it was…
…so he whipped out his NRD and found out that they were telling the truth (at least in the area we were standing in).
The Hot Lab suffered a number of fires involving radioactive materials. For example, in 1957, a fire in the Hot Cell “got out of control and massive contamination” resulted. In July, 1959, the site suffered a partial nuclear meltdown that has been named “the worst in U.S. history”, releasing an undisclosed amount of radiation, but thought to be much more than the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979. Another radioactive fire occurred in 1971, involving combustible primary reactor coolant (NaK) contaminated with mixed fission products. At least four of the ten nuclear reactors suffered accidents. The AE6 reactor experienced a release of fission gases in March 1959, the SRE experienced a power excursion and partial meltdown in July 1959; the SNAP8ER in 1964 experienced damage to 80% of its fuel; and the SNAP8DR in 1969 experienced similar damage to one-third of its fuel. The reactors located on the grounds of SSFL were considered experimental, and therefore had no containment structures. Reactors and highly radioactive components were housed without the large concrete domes that now surround most modern power reactors.
There are many protected or endangered plants and animals that live around the site but this has to be my favorite one. Is it legless because of the radioactive contamination?
Most of the site is now in a very long stage of environmental cleanup and compliance. There are lots of water treatment facilities on-site, including this one located near Area 4.
Three test stands were initially constructed at the Coca area in 1956 to support the development of the Navaho and Atlas engines.
In 1963, two of the original stands were demolished and replaced by two large engine test stands for testing the second stage of the Saturn-V launch vehicle. In 1974, further test stand modifications were made to accommodate Space Shuttle main Engine component development. Later modifications enabled testing of the SSME engine system.
COCA I – The Coca RFI Site, located within Area II of the SSFL, is owned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Deep thoughts about the hydrogen bomb.
Not an actual rocket but a playground version of one…aren’t those engineers funny?
After our tour was complete we were gifted with a bag, hat and more information regarding the site. As part of their public affairs outreach program, Boeing hosts occasional bus tours, “rocket walks,” and nature hikes throughout the property to educate the community and gain support for their efforts. If you’re a space geek, abandoned spaces freak or just wanna take a peek at this once secretive spot, def go check it out but make sure you’re aware of the possible dangers you may be exposing yourself to.