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Look Homeward, Angels: California and the Rise and Fall of America’s Space Program

Posted on Jul 30, 2011
Flickr / james.gordon6108 (CC-BY)

The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, pictured on the tarmac at Edwards Air Force Base, is said to have helped keep Russia at bay during the Cold War.

By Deanne Stillman

(Page 2)

Blind in his right eye, Milton piloted a rocket-like capsule on four wheels powered by his signature Miller hyper-engine across the Muroc flats at 141 and then 151 miles per hour, winning the tough international Class C and D championships in 1924 and bringing more attention to the wonders of the Mojave. By 1933, the military had moved into the desert, and the Air Force set up its first permanent base at Muroc. In 1942, America’s first jet, the Bell XP-59A Airacomet, made its first flight there while World War II raged on two fronts. The news was kept under wraps for years. In October 1947, Capt. Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier when he flew the Bell X-1 rocket research airplane at a speed of Mach 1.06, after it was dropped from a B-29 mother ship. Again, the news was withheld, until December of that year, when Aviation Week announced the stunning accomplishment. Over the years there would come many more aerospace feats and breakthroughs above the desert sands where they had been dreamed up. 

But it would take a woman named Pancho Barnes to take the party to the next level. Born in 1901 to prominent Pasadena parents, Barnes got married at 18, hated her high-society life, dropped out and embarked on a lifelong career of adventures, becoming “Pancho” instead of her given “Florence” after wandering the wilds of Mexico in 1928. Back in the States, she took to the skies and soon was one of the first women in the country to earn a pilot’s license. She raced in air derbies with Amelia Earhart and in 1930 topped Earhart’s speed record, clocking in at 196.19 miles per hour. Barnes also was a test pilot for military aircraft. Soon Hollywood came calling, offering her work as a stunt pilot. She quickly developed friendships with Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn. One day, while flying over the Antelope Valley in her capacity as test pilot for Lockheed, she spotted an alfalfa farm between Rosamond and Rogers dry lakes. In 1935, she bought it and moved there; it soon became the Happy Bottom Riding Club, at one time as legendary for its desert soirees as Burning Man

The first thing Barnes did was carve out a landing strip so her friends could fly in for parties. Within months the property turned into a full-fledged spread, with Barnes acquiring cattle, pigs and horses, setting up a saloon, a restaurant, a dance hall and motel. And thus her relationship with the military flourished. She supplied meat and milk to the Muroc Bombing and Gunnery Range and entertainment in the form of glamorous hostesses who worked at her bar. Chuck Yeager and other noted pilots of the era were regulars at the Happy Bottom Riding Club. Later, Barnes would look back and say, “We had more fun in a week than most of the weenies in the world have in a lifetime.” 

But parties must inevitably be shut down; Muroc had become Edwards Air Force Base and the burgeoning flight program needed more land—or so went the claim. The military made a move to condemn the Barnes property and acquire it. Barnes fought the acquisition in court in a trial that gained international notoriety, with the Air Force accusing her of running a brothel and Barnes fighting for property rights—the kind of desert battle that continues to this day. “They picked the wrong gal to push around,” Barnes said, and as the trial exploded, the Happy Bottom Riding Club went up in flames. As the ranch smoldered, Barnes won her case—but the party was over and the legendary pilot and friend of the military retreated to another small town in the desert. She fell out of touch with her Air Force pals and they did not seek her company. Finally, in 1961, she was acknowledged as “The Mother of Edwards Air Force Base.” On April 5, 1975, she was scheduled to speak at the Antelope Valley Aero Museum’s annual Barnstormer’s Reunion. But a few days before the event, she died. Her funeral was attended by such luminaries as Chuck Yeager, Buzz Aldrin and Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, who eulogized this great figure thusly:

… [She] had “a heart as big as a ham.” ... She put great store by courage, honor and integrity. She despised dishonesty and cowardice. She was straightforward and abhorred sham. You know, I can just see her up there at this very minute. In her inimitable way, with a wry smile, she is probably remarking to some old and dear friend who preceded her, “I wondered what the little old bald-headed bastard was going to say.” … And may I now propose a toast: Ladies and gentlemen—to Pancho Barnes. Pancho Barnes!

By the time Barnes had died, the Antelope Valley was in a boom period, filling up with those who had come to work in the expanding aerospace industry. No one typifies this boom more than longtime Lancaster resident Bob Gonzalez. Born in Santa Ana in 1936, Gonzalez’s parents were self-educated, naturalized citizens from Mexico who had come to California around 1916 to seek the golden dream—their own version of the story told in “October Sky.” During World War II, Gonzalez’s father was employed as a welder in the Long Beach shipyards. When the war ended, Gonzalez, in high school, would travel with his father to the San Joaquin Valley during the summertime to work the orange groves along with some of his siblings. “I used to put cardboard inside my shoes for soles,” he told me as he recalled the old days. “We slept on a bed under a fig tree. There were so many mosquitoes, we lit fires to keep them away. It got so bad I couldn’t take it.” 


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By Jon, August 7, 2011 at 7:52 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As someone who grew up in the middle of all
this (my father started as a time card checker
on the SR-71 project and rose through the ranks
at Lockheed in his 29 !/2 years at the
company), this article brings back many
memories…in my sophomore year in high school,
the guy sitting in front of me in home room was
the son of Lockheed’s chief test pilot, the
girl to my right was the daughter of a man who
walked on the moon, and to her right was Joe
Walker Jr.-the son of the X-15 pilot killed in
a testing accident during the XB-70/SST
program.  I can remember sitting in class at
Quartz Hill High School as teachers had to stop
talking as an SR-71 would take off on a path
leading it over the school, and on one occasion
trying to change a flat tire for my mother on
Sierra Highway when a black jet took off right
over us, got about 200 feet off the ground,
then pointed the nose pretty much straight up
and all but disappeared…man was it loud. 
(And because we happened to be stopped where we
were, this then 11 year old ended up watching
MPs finish changing the tire when they
investigated why someone was parked right
I can also remember the hush that would fall
over secretarial offices in high school and
college any time a large plume of black smoke
would rise up out of the desert from the
direction of Edwards AFB…most of the ladies
were married to someone who worked there, and
until word got around about what happened, the
silence was perceptible (unless it was the 2nd
Friday of the month-the day that contaminated
fuel was “burned off” at around 11am-something
we all knew was done on a consistent basis).
I remember a hot shot pilot at the flight test
school showing off by flying under the high-
tension electrical cables strung across Godde
Hill Road and setting the hillside on fire with
his exhaust-today, you’d burn down houses by
doing that, but back then, just a few buckwheat
bushes and manzanitas.
And finally, I remember a place which, if you
were interested in learning and science, found
ways to give you opportunities to experience
that, whether it was class field trips to the
NASA facility at Edwards (being in the bunker
for an actual rocket test is AWESOME!) to
having the chance to actually talk to and hear
the experiences of men who walked on the moon.
It’s true, as others here have noted, that the
community as a whole is considerably to the
right of just about anywhere in California (or
anywhere else for that matter), the religious
zealots play far too important a role in the
local society, and between the sun, the
constant wind, and the horrid influx of
methamphetamine cooks that began with the first
aerospace downturn in the 1980’s that people’s
brains can get cooked in their skulls.  So much
of that, though, comes from the area being
ignored by anyone who doesn’t live there (try
finding a weather listing for Antelope
Valley/Lancaster or Palmdale in most
newspapers-even in California, the best you end
up with is usually Barstow), and the local
media (for many years, one EXTREMELY
conservative daily newspaper) controlling what
topics are even discussed within the community.
And don’t get me started on the area’s use as a
dumping ground for all things Los Angeles
considers odious-whether it’s their sewage,
their garbage, or the bodies of their gang

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By Paul, August 5, 2011 at 5:46 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Let’s not be too quick to flatter Lancaster as a California municipal power vector
merely because it’s the testing ground and assembly site for military and space
hardware.  I grew up there.  It’s a backward, ultra-conservative stronghold led by a
racist, demagogue Mayor and represented in the state legislature by a reactionary
fundamentalist Christian who showed his stripes in high school and only got more
uptight as time went on.  Cops who police LA choose to live there because
Antelope Valley politics perfectly suit their anti-urban mentality.  Culturally, the
place exists in another time and place.  Not quite the 1950s and not quite rural
Kansas.  Better to let it Lancaster stew in its inflammatory retro-cultural juices
than to call any more attention than necessary to the mold that’s growing in that
civic Petri dish.

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By BR549, August 2, 2011 at 3:46 am Link to this comment

Patrick Henry,
I was on the flight line when one had taken off after an emergency landing and repair in Korea. That happened several times, actually, but this one time we were doing to communications work when this thing went to leave. We were about 200 feet from it. Forget the ear muffs, the sound went right through your forehead. Almost 100 ft of vertically serrated white thrust ....... wish I had that on my pickup truck.

He took off, came back around with a low pass and a wig-wag, then pointed it straight up and only made a correction after what seemed like 30,000 feet. Hard to tell, but imagine what some indigenous tribesmen must have said to his fellows after seeing one of those for the first time.

Very impressive ..... and all done on a slide rule. Here we were with all this “hardware” and we still couldn’t finish Viet Nam, just like we are losing the battle in Afghanistan. Perhaps because we didn’t have the moral high ground and they had home court advantage. Maybe we should put the politicians into forced labor camps and do something more constructive with all those tax dollars.

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By PatrickHenry, August 2, 2011 at 2:21 am Link to this comment


I saw them up close at Kadena in the 70’s, they leaked alot.

The side looking radar was suppose to look out 80 nautical miles on either side of the craft.

This technology is now offically ancient as we have drones which can beat this hands down.

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BR549's avatar

By BR549, August 1, 2011 at 2:55 pm Link to this comment

PatrickHenry, July 31 at 7:26 am
“Some 19 planes Flying since 1958 at 110,000k feet.”
That is what I had heard. The figures in this article are what they released to the public.
One of my roommates in the AF was a TACAN supervisor and said he had logged one in
from the Midwest to Okinawa in 2 hrs 55 min, which sounds about right, speedwise.

“Gold fuel lines were designed to handle JP-7 which was so corrosive it would eat through
other metals.” Apparently, they had to heat the fuel because it was fairly viscous (someone
can correct me on that) and the titanium plates were somewhat loosely jointed to allow for
expansion of even the titanium. The trick was to get the JP7 seeping aircraft aloft and up to
speed so that the joints would swell up enough to stop the seepage. The nacelle
temperatures were not uncommonly at 640F from the atmospheric friction, so it was no
wonder then that the ground crews approached it with asbestos attire.

I wasn’t aware of the gold fuel lines. Since diesel fuel has a lower dielectric constant than
gasoline, I can only imagine that JP7 might have been that much more of a problem.

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By Michael Cavlan RN, July 31, 2011 at 3:01 pm Link to this comment

Let me see if I am getting this straight.

The president has proposed giving away Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The off the deep end, looney Tea Party Republicans are driving the agenda for the House Bill. Meanwhile Harry Reid has offered the looney, right wing Tea Party nut jobs just about everything they want in the Senate Bill.

Yet the TruthDig editorial has made the decision to have their top featured story about a small town, military hardware and the Space Program?

Oh wait, just like corporate media. If the owners push a story (Michael Jackson, murder of Kaylee Anthony) then investigate for the real story. The ones that the corporate owners are attempting to hide from you.


where real stories are present. Where articles that do NOT make apologies or excuses for the corporate plutocracy get ink.

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By ESMDbldg350, July 31, 2011 at 12:14 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The California Space Program also owes a lot to all the workers in plants in places like El Segundo and JPL in Pasadena.

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By TDoff, July 31, 2011 at 11:52 am Link to this comment

One of the highlights of Lockheed’s Skunk Works programs with the various Blackbirds, was flying, day or night, cameras running, at the beginning and end of missions or training flights, over the Santa Barbara area home of Bo Derek. She loved to sunbathe, play and party at her poolside, enjoying the total privacy she thought her estate provided.

For years, at a certain Lancaster, Ca. bar, many a happy hour was enlivened as her pilot/admirers traded the latest snoop-shots (they referred to them by a different name).

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By Fred LaMotte, July 31, 2011 at 6:29 am Link to this comment

We need an earth program.

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By PatrickHenry, July 31, 2011 at 6:26 am Link to this comment

The Habu,

Some 19 planes Flying since 1958 at 110,000k feet.

When Gary Powers was shot down and the U-2 finally disclosed, the SR-71 was operational for 2 years.

Gold fuel lines were designed to handle JP-7 which was so corrosive it would eat through other metals.  Special tankers had to be designed to refuel it.

There is rumored a follow on SR-75 but who knows?

The American Government keeps these and other ‘Black’ programs ‘secret’ from the public due to the obscene costs involved developing them.

Our so called enemies know all about them, when they fly and how fast and how high.

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By ardee, July 31, 2011 at 6:00 am Link to this comment

Outsourcing, the great plague that cripples ingenuity and creates vastly greater expense long term .....Another brick in the wall.

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By Richard_Ralph_Roehl, July 30, 2011 at 7:48 pm Link to this comment

Space program? I think not!

Amerika is going nowhere fast! First of all… Amerika’s foreign policy is delusional, violent, racist, immoral and criminally insane. It is a war mongering plutocratic $tate, a faster poo-food nation of willfully ignorant corn syrup consumer/citizens, a KKKristian/Zionist nation that can’t even manufacture its own shoes anymore.

Come on! Do you think a nation that can’t make shoes for its people is going to break into the frontiers of deep ‘espace’? Think about it. Indeed! Rome is burning… because where there is no insight, the people perish.

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By prisnersdilema, July 30, 2011 at 3:03 pm Link to this comment

The corporations that run things have decided that the space program should be
privatized, that way discoveries, and new technology can be kept secret, safe from FOIA

Secrecy and greed have destroyed and are destroying this country.

The corporations are destroying everything and everyone through their puppet agencies,
like FDA, USDA.

The same will happen to the space program. Remember that secrecy is just another
form of greed. That those the keep the secrets are responsible for the damage done,
just as those that order it.

Better a life time in prison, than an entity in hell.

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By gerard, July 30, 2011 at 2:17 pm Link to this comment

Romantic dreams of empire—but as Muroc was “blind in his right eye”, so are we all more or less lacking in vision. Hence, this air-war-borne empire called “America” is about to crash in the wastelands of mismanagement,greed and sterile authoritarianism—unless we can come up with something more humane, grounded in peaceful coexistence, as the guy said.

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By ongre11, July 30, 2011 at 11:55 am Link to this comment

A lovely story, I remember that America. We as a people are at a very critical juncture. The corporatists and political leaders have moved on to the greener pastures of the highly populated countries like China, India and Indonesia for their “markets”. Our Children will have a very different world to live in. Those frickin’ bootstraps better be strong and smart!

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By DarthMiffy, July 30, 2011 at 11:33 am Link to this comment

Ah, when America was great. I remember…

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