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 headquartered on 56 acres in Canoga Park, near Los Angeles, Calif. 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 American 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.
Rocketdyne went on to produce large, liquid-propellant rocket engines for guided missiles at a plant in Neosho, Mo., and began to study the feasibility of ion propulsion for deep space probes. The division also developed the H-1 rocket engines and the massive F-1 rocket engine, later used for the Apollo program. Rocketdyne's Redstone engine powered the first crewed flights for NASA's project Mercury, and a Redstone missile made its first successful launch from an inland position to an inland target during 1958.
Other projects included a midget auxiliary rocket engine used to power space vehicles or provide extra power for jet fighters and the tiny P-4 engine to be used as a target drone. In 1960, Rocketdyne started producing gas generators for the Tartar and Terrier missiles, produced M-34 boosters for launching target drones, and began developing advanced technologies in solid propulsion. The same year, the division began work on the hydrogen-fueled, upper-stage J-2 engine that would power the Saturn S-II. In 1966, the J-2 engines were test-fired successfully.
By 1965, almost 16,000 people worked for the division in Southern California. Rocketdyne expanded its operations after 1967 to support North American's Envirotech Corp., the first "total systems" company in the pollution control field. It also built the experimental advanced Aerospike engine and afterburners for the turbofan engines of the F-111 advanced fighter and developed a new energy-propellant rocket engine called FLEXEM (flexible energy management). Rocketdyne also supported the U.S. Air Force Airborne Laser Laboratory and built torpedo ejection systems for the Navy's Trident nuclear submarines, as well as engines for the Lance missiles, Peacekeeper missiles, Boeing Jetfoils, and the fourth stage of the Minuteman III.
In 1978, Rocketdyne sold its Solid-Propellant Rocket division at McGregor, Texas, to Hercules Inc. and in 1982 celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Atlas program, which had 467 successful launches. In 1989, a Rocketdyne-powered Delta II launched the first production global positioning satellite, and in 1990, the division opened the Space Power Electronic Laboratory to test circuitry for the International Space Station.
Through to the end of the 20th century, Rocketdyne engines launched U.S. satellites and the country's first crewed spaceflight and powered the Saturn V and every major space program in the United States, including Skylab, Pioneer 2, the space shuttles and the Atlantis spaceprobe.
In August 2005, Boeing sold the the Rocketdyne Propulsion and Power Division to United Technologies Corp.