Dec 5, 2013
Look Homeward, Angels: California and the Rise and Fall of America’s Space Program
Posted on Jul 30, 2011
Letter From the West is a monthly series by Deanne Stillman that explores what is going on in our wide open spaces and what we do to one another and all that lives there.
To commemorate the end of the space program, I decided to watch the movie “October Sky,” which is all about its beginning. It starts in 1957, when a monumental thing occurs: Man grows wings and leaves planet Earth, circling it for the next three months in a satellite called Sputnik. Although it did not have a pilot, citizens of all nations were aboard the Russian ship by way of radio transmissions that were broadcast everywhere. In classrooms across America, children sat and listened to the eerie static and high-pitched wheeees and other assorted odd sounds that seemed to be coming through from another dimension. One of the children who heard the broadcast was Homer Hickham, responding to the sounds with a love of rockets that helped propel him out of a deadly Appalachian mining town and into the new frontier, as JFK later called the uncharted territory of the Big Dipper and Orion’s Belt and the Milky Way.
In the movie, Homer confronts his reluctant and fearful father, who runs the local mine and hopes that his son will some day reach that pinnacle. But Homer’s gaze is fixed on the heavens. When an accident incapacitates his father, Homer is forced to give up his dream and follow the family trail into the mines and darkness. But thanks to an intervention from his mother, Homer’s dream prevails. At the end of this tale, father joins son as they launch a rocket together, a moment of joy that reunites them, sending Homer on his new path as a rocketeer at NASA. At the iconic outfit of extraterrestrial exploration, he becomes a pivotal figure in America’s space program. The story told in “October Sky” is true. And the escape route it portrayed so well may now be permanently closed.
While much of the coverage of the end of the space shuttle age has focused on Florida, the launching pad for many missions, it should be recalled that another region of the country was equally important, if not more so in some ways, in our explorations of outer space. I refer to the Antelope Valley of Los Angeles County, and in particular the Mojave city of Lancaster. Hardly as well known as many other parts of California, its population is still relatively small (300,000), although until recently it was one of the fastest-growing areas in the state. And in many ways it may be one of the most powerful cities in the world, considering that it and its environs are a vortex of might, munitions, engineering feats, flight records, outer space exploration, rocket science and nearly every other method by which America has attained complete air supremacy around the planet. Downtown Lancaster features its own answer to the Hollywood Walk of Fame: A strip there honors Chuck Yeager and other aviation pioneers—a parade of people known for having the right stuff. (Say what you will about American domination of the ethers, but who would dare call what these men had “the wrong stuff”? It would be blasphemy at its most extreme.) These American heroes are depicted in elaborate frescoes on the walls of local establishments, painstakingly created portraits that preserve these men for as long as the elements will permit it. There’s even a main drag called Challenger Way, and a stealth bomber is parked forever at a main intersection—not a sculpture of a stealth bomber, but the real thing; a frank and stunning monument to power.
At nearby Edwards Air Force Base (at 301,000 acres the second-largest U.S. air base in the world), vast arsenals lurk in the sands, issuing a statement that crosses all language boundaries and only other men of the desert have dared to answer. At the Lockheed Martin “Skunk Works” and the hush-hush Air Force “Plant 42” in neighboring Palmdale, new technology is being dreamed up, cooked, molded, hardened and polished as I write, and every day, every few minutes in fact, warrior pilots in the Antelope Valley take off in sleek airborne envelopes, plying the skies and patrolling the world, seated at the controls of sophisticated, top-secret machinery that was forged in the magic dust of this region. Out of these glittering swirls came the U-2 spy plane, the F-22 Raptor (as with many high-speed aviation vehicles, its design is derived from the flight patterns and mechanics of real birds of prey), and the legendary SR-71 Blackbird, the titanium jet that moves at Mach 3.2 at 80,000 feet, has a range of 4,000 miles and is said to have kept Russia at bay during the Cold War; its feats are so astonishing that to this day no one except the people who made it and fly it know exactly what it does, and they are sworn to secrecy. Retired in 1999 (although rumored to still be in service, somewhere up there), it is now on display at the Blackbird Air Park at 25th Street East and Avenue P in Palmdale, along with the A-12, its predecessor, and the airborne workhorse of the 1950s, the U-2. Together, these jets represent four decades of a shadow history in which design visionaries such as Kelly Johnson at Skunk Works and dream factories such as Lockheed, Boeing and Northrop made it possible for America to win the battle for the heavens.
In a way, the whole thing started with dry lake beds, those great prehistoric wastes which seem to issue a challenge: “Hey you!” they call. “Come have a party! Fly me!” From the beginning of the 20th century through the present, many private citizens and a parade of military institutions have come to see the Antelope Valley as a place where you can test limits—and in fact the Antelope Valley is also called Aerospace Valley. In 1902, an early Antelope Valley settler set the first of many land speed records on Rosamond Dry Lake, whizzing across the sands on a sailboat with wheels. In 1902, the Corum family decided to homestead on the west side of Rogers Dry Lake, and soon a few others followed; thus was born the small town called Muroc—“Corum” backwards. From 1926 to ’33, many car-racing records were set on the Rosamond and Muroc dry lakes, including those set by racing legend Tommy Milton.
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