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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 3)

In 1954, Gonzalez quit high school and joined the Air Force. He was sent to tech school to learn all about aerospace. Soon he was stationed in England, where he met the woman he would marry. They returned to the States and were transferred from base to base as Gonzalez rose through the ranks. In 1969 he was sent to Vietnam, where he worked as an aircraft engine superintendent at a base in Saigon. As the war raged, his wife, Sheila, was living at a trailer park in Rosamond, raising their four children. After his one-year tour, Gonzalez was sent back to the States. He retired on July 1, 1974, after 20 years of service with a deep knowledge of how airplanes worked, how to keep them running and how to manage the teams of people who made them fly. One week later, he got a job at the General Electric plant on Edwards Air Force Base. He was hired to work on the B-1 bomber. 

Then Gonzalez bought a house in Lancaster, where some of the area’s early tracts had just been built. There were two tracts called Larwin. “We found a wonderful house in the second one,” Sheila recalled in a conversation on her porch. “It cost $30,000 and we got financing through a VA loan.” Its most alluring feature was that it was “all-electric”—which meant that bills for the water heater and furnace would be kept to a minimum, just as the famous and now very quaint “live better electrically” General Electric ads of the era promised. “There were only six houses in our tract then,” Gonzalez recalled. “The tumbleweeds would pile up at the door. Everybody was proud of their lawns.”   

As it happened, Gonzalez never worked on the B-1 bomber. Instead he worked on other classified programs, going back to school to study airplane design and engineering and ultimately working on some of the country’s premier aircraft. He was at Edwards for 19 years, until 1993 when he and many other employees were laid off during an “RIF”—a reduction in force, also known as “We’ll farm it out,” Gonzalez said. By then, there were 200 homes in his tract and the main drag that ran parallel to his lot was called Challenger Way, renamed in tribute to the space program that had flourished at Edwards. Yet it was a time of economic downturn and an Antelope Valley that depended heavily on the aerospace industry was hit hard. Solid working-class neighborhoods like Larwin began to change; some houses were foreclosed on, empty dwellings filled up with squatters, and absentee landlords began renting out to welfare refugees who received Section 8 housing aid.

But Bob Gonzalez wasn’t going anywhere; he had sunk roots in Lancaster and there he and his family would stay, through all the boom and bust cycles, because for him he is a short distance but a very long way from the fruit fields of the San Joaquin Valley. Today, he is a great-grandfather who spends his days fishing, traveling and tinkering in his garage as sonic booms thunder across the big skies of the Antelope Valley. He likes the sound of the passing jets, and he always marvels at the contrails in the skies. Although his humble demeanor would never betray such a thing, he’s proud of having worked on the very thing that made America what it is today, a quiet accomplishment that helped his family flourish in a time when hard work was valued. In the Antelope Valley there are thousands of people just like Bob Gonzalez, and they are all one of a kind.

* * *


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On any given day in the Mojave, when wind conditions are right, and often enough even when they are not, you can see boys setting off rockets at a dry lake bed. Sometimes they are with their fathers and sometimes with their friends. Sometimes they are by themselves, lonely not at all, putting the final touches on a flying vessel that they made. Carefully they insert the fuel, tenderly they fold the parachute so the rocket can return. They arrange it just so on the launching pad and then proffer a flame, stepping clear of the blastoff and watching the vessel rise, lost and found in that delirious moment when it leaves the Earth, slices through the air, pauses as the second stage engages, regaining speed and picking up some more, racing toward the heavens. 

“Look at it go, Homer,” a friend says to the boy as they launch a homemade rocket in “October Sky.”  “This one’s gonna go for miles.”

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By Jon, August 7, 2011 at 8:52 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 6:46 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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BR549's avatar

By BR549, August 2, 2011 at 4:46 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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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, August 2, 2011 at 3:21 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 3:55 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 4:01 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 1:14 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 12:52 pm 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 7:29 am Link to this comment

We need an earth program.

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, July 31, 2011 at 7:26 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 7:00 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 8:48 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 4:03 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 3:17 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 12:55 pm 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 12:33 pm Link to this comment

Ah, when America was great. I remember…

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