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Curtis Peebles recounts the history of the aerospace industry in California’s Antelope Valley, home to Edwards Air Force Base. (credit: D. Day)

Blue skies on the West Coast: a history of the aerospace industry in Southern California

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The generals

The second day of the conference started with an all-brass lineup: three current and one retired Air Force generals. The panel was moderated by Lieutenant General John L. Hudson, commander of the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, who oversees the Air Force’s development and acquisition of aeronautical systems. It consisted of Lieutenant General Michael Hamel, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base; Major General Curtis M. Bedke, commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base; and another former Edwards commander, retired Major General Phil J. Conley.

Major General Conley started the discussion by explaining that he had served at Edwards for three different periods during his career, 1956–1961, 1971–1974, and 1978–1982. Conley attended the US Naval Academy in the years after World War 2 and was planning for a career as a naval aviator. However, the rapid drawdown of the Navy left the service with insufficient funding to fuel its airplanes. Faced with the prospect of being sent to the surface navy, Conley quickly jumped at the opportunity to transfer to the Air Force and fly. But he soon found himself sent to Korea, something that mystified him—he could not understand why a nation that had thousands of aerial combat veterans was sending inexperienced aviators into combat.

After the war he received further education in management and was then sent to Edwards, where he was astounded by the number of programs underway in the desert. These included the X-15 rocketplane, “Century Series” fighters like the F-100, F-101, F-102 and F-104, and by the late 1950s, the X-20 Dyna-Soar spaceplane.

Edwards spent less and less time determining the performance and flying qualities of the aircraft it tested, and more time on what they called “systems testing,” or determining how all of the aircraft’s different parts worked together.

After his stint at Edwards Conley was eventually sent to Vietnam where he was supposed to conduct “operational research” to determine more efficient and effective ways of fighting the war. But he and his colleagues from the other branches of the military soon learned that simply having a lot of data was insufficient to draw useful conclusions. Much of the data that they had gathered was the result of meaningless surveys done of pilots returning from combat. Forced to fill out forms, the pilots merely scribbled down garbage—something that they called “pencil whipping.” Conley later applied his operational research skills to a more useful project called Red Baron which eventually led to lessons incorporated into the design of the Air Force’s rugged A-10 Warthog tank-busting airplane.

When Conley returned to Edwards in the early 1970s the base was again involved in numerous testing projects, including the massive Lockheed C-5A Galaxy transport and a lot of projects involving the tiny F-5 fighter. The base was also conducting tests of lifting body aircraft and the early flight tests of the Have Blue stealth fighter prototype. Conley returned to Edwards again in the late 1970s around the same time that President Carter canceled the B-1A bomber. Carter directed that although the bomber’s production should be terminated, the test program should continue. But Conley found that this was difficult to accomplish. With production terminated, many of the subcontractors dried up and spare parts became scarce. The base put two aircraft into storage as hangar queens—i.e. sources of spare parts for the flying aircraft. But they faced other problems as well. For instance, when the B-1 was still planned as the future bomber for the Strategic Air Command (SAC) the testing operations had top priority access to refueling tankers. After the cancellation, SAC practically ignored them and they were placed on a waiting list for tanker support.

Conley concluded by echoing something said the day before by Sherman Mullin, the Lockheed computer engineer: over time the airframe became a less important and time consuming portion of the airplane and electronics soon dominated not only the design and development phase, but the testing phase as well. Edwards spent less and less time determining the performance and flying qualities of the aircraft it tested, and more time on what they called “systems testing,” or determining how all of the aircraft’s different parts worked together: the radar, the electronics and flight control system, and communications.

Major General Curtis Bedke, the current commander at Edwards, provided a different take on his base’s history. Instead of focusing on Edwards, he recounted the history of March Air Force Base (now Air Reserve Base), east of Los Angeles. Built during World War 1 and named March Field, the base served as a training facility supporting Curtis Jenny biplanes. The base was closed down, but then reopened in 1927. In 1929 it supported the first American air-to-air refueling tests and in 1931 housed the Air Force’s First Bombardment Wing. In 1933 the famous Hap Arnold sought a place where his pilots could train to drop bombs and learned about the vast Muroc dry lake bed to the north. Arnold put on civilian attire and drove up to the sparsely populated area to check it out. He determined that it was perfect for their needs and eventually Edwards Air Force Base was born. Bedke recounted how when he flies at Edwards visibility is frequently over 150 kilometers in any direction, perfect flying weather. “There was a cloud that came over the other day and I canceled flying—because that’s dangerous,” he joked.

After World War 2 March became a tactical fighter base but then became part of Strategic Air Command. Today the base supports Predator unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Bedke concluded by saying that he sees the region’s aerospace future in five areas: electronic warfare, UAVs, network-centric operations, directed-energy weapons, and hypersonic vehicles.

Lieutenant General Michael Hamel spoke about his perspective as commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center in El Segundo. He said that although it is known for other things, California is the birthplace of military space. Project RAND, then at the Douglas Aircraft factory in Santa Monica, produced the first report on military spacecraft in 1946. General Bernard Schriever later set up the Western Development Division to design ballistic missiles in El Segundo. He chose the area because the weather was good and there was already substantial industry to support the missile program. Schriever’s group pioneered rapid development of systems.

The Air Force space program suffered large cutbacks in the 1990s and later engaged in what Hamel called misguided experiments in acquisition reform. The Air Force decided to depend upon the commercial marketplace for more space services and this resulted in the loss of satellites and several launch vehicle failures and the destruction of billions of dollars in space assets. They have since spent many years returning to their more traditional management practices. He concluded by noting that the military is increasing its dependence upon space assets, and cited examples such as controlling Predator UAVs halfway around the world via satellite, and tracking friendly forces on the battlefield with GPS.

At one point shortly after Sputnik local officials estimated that as many as 40 percent of the houses in the Antelope Valley area were vacant and new residents could often purchase them simply by agreeing to take over the mortgage payments.

The moderator, Lieutenant General John Hudson, concluded the discussion with several observations and comments about the future direction of Air Force operations in the region. He said that he foresees a major effort to qualify more aircraft to use synthetic fuels as a response to higher oil prices. This has already been accomplished with the B-52 bomber. He also said that he relies on academia to a greater extent today than in the past to conduct work that the military used to do, specifically mentioning both RAND and JPL.

The military impact

Following the generals was a panel on the relationship between the military and local civilian communities. The panel consisted of Gretchen Heefner, a doctoral student at Yale; aviation writer Curtis Peebles; and myself.

Heefner spoke about the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division’s role in building ICBM silos in the American Midwest, when “decisions made in Inglewood took on the weight of those in Washington.” During the early 1960s General Schriever’s organization began selecting sites for basing the missiles that it was developing. Although the individual parcels of land required for ICBM silos were small, the large number of missiles that the Air Force planned to deploy—initially over 2,000, but eventually pared down to 1,000—meant that huge amounts of territory were acquired, usually through eminent domain. Each missile wing consisted of 150 missiles and required 31,000 square kilometers of territory. Schriever, she said, was effectively “playing god with the lives of people who lived on the Great Plains.”

There were no coordinated protests of these land seizures, and in fact protesting was virtually impossible given the way the decisions were made. The Air Force had a labyrinthine bureaucracy that was complicated by the fact that Ballistic Missile Division was based in Los Angeles, not Washington.

Curtis Peebles then spoke about the history of the Antelope Valley, which contains Edwards Air Force Base and numerous industries and communities associated with aerospace. He said that Muroc’s dry lake bed ultimately proved ideal for testing airplanes because its surface can support 250 pounds per square inch, and the lakebed allowed pilots to land their aircraft in any direction. He said that boom and bust cycles occurring at roughly ten-year intervals affected the surrounding communities. Soon after Sputnik the Air Force canceled a large number of aircraft testing programs and diverted money to missiles and space, resulting in substantial cutbacks at Edwards. At one point local officials estimated that as many as 40 percent of the houses in the area were vacant and new residents could often purchase them simply by agreeing to take over the mortgage payments.

Another boom occurred in the 1980s, but the biggest bust started in 1989 at the end of the Cold War. By 2002, Space Shuttle operations were consolidated and also moved out of the valley. Fortunately, Peebles said that the role of the aerospace industry on the local economy has been mixed. The surrounding area never became a one-industry town, because farming and borax mining remain important.

The archivists and the curators

The final session of the conference focused on existing collections of aerospace documents and collections.

Katrina Pescador, an archivist with the San Diego Air and Space Museum, spoke about her museum’s substantial aviation and space library and document collections. Pescador said that a devastating arsonist’s fire in the 1970s destroyed most of the museum’s holdings and they had spent a long time recovering from that disaster. In the late 1990s the museum had been working on developing a new facility because it has no room for growth at its existing site at Balboa Park in the hills above downtown San Diego’s waterfront. But the terrorist attacks of September 11 dried up attendance at the museum and put their modernization plans on permanent hold.

She said that the museum has always been heavily dependent upon volunteers for help, including cataloging its document and photographic collections. Although this free labor is greatly appreciated, it has created problems for researchers because the volunteers have used different indexing approaches. She said that her current goal is to put as many of their collections on the Internet as possible.

Julie Cooper, an archivist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, talked about her institution’s collection and its rules for access. Because JPL is owned and managed by Caltech under NASA contract, the archives operate under a complicated set of rules, and documents often have to be approved for release before visiting researchers are allowed to see them.

Also speaking was Art Hansen, a professor of history at California State University at Fullerton, who discussed various oral history collections.

Bonita Smith of The Aerospace Corporation discussed her organization’s document collections, which are primarily intended for the company’s engineers. Many of their holdings are classified and few are available for public access. She also discussed the difficulty and advantages of developing electronic document collections.

Philips concluded his talk by saying “If I do my job well, we will produce the future engineers and scientists who will produce the aircraft and spacecraft that we will talk about in 30 years.”

Ken Phillips, the curator for Aerospace Science at the California Science Center in downtown Los Angeles, explained that his facility is not a history museum but an education center aimed at school children. As such, the center has organized its artifact collections around various educational themes, including the difficulties of keeping humans alive in space. He said that the museum has several space artifacts, including the Apollo-Soyuz Command Module, an Apollo 16 spacesuit, the Gemini 11 spacecraft, and a particular favorite for school children, the Mercury-Redstone 2 space capsule that carried the chimpanzee Ham into orbit in 1961.

The last speaker was Harry Waldron from the Space and Missile Systems Center. Waldron discussed his facility’s extensive paper, film, audio, and other holdings. Most of this material is still classified and therefore restricted. He said that some material was being declassified and some of this sheds light on little known aspects of the military space program. For instance, he mentioned a film that depicts tests of equipment for Program 621B, the Air Force’s initial navigation satellite program that eventually evolved into the GPS system.

Perhaps the best comment summarizing the conference came from Ken Phillips of the California Science Center. Somewhat out of place on a panel of historians and archivists, Philips concluded his talk by saying “If I do my job well, we will produce the future engineers and scientists who will produce the aircraft and spacecraft that we will talk about in 30 years.”