Comeback Tour

By William Vietinghoff

May 2016

In the mountains 35 miles northwest of Los Angeles is an industrial research and development facility of 2,850 acres, named for its location: the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, or SSFL. During 59 years of operation, SSFL was the home for development and testing of components and rocket engines for almost all of the American defense and space exploration vehicles. In 1953, I had the outrageous good fortune of becoming part of the engineering workforce on "The Hill," as we affectionately called the place. As a small boy, I devoured every scrap of information on rocket engines that I could find, never imagining myself even being close to the people and the hardware that fascinated me. Here, at Santa Susana, I could place my hand on a rocket engine and sense the power.

Boeing acquired Rocketdyne in 1996 and sold it in 2005, retaining part ownership of SSFL. Some of the areas are owned by the federal government. The facility is now closed and is undergoing remediation by Boeing, NASA and the Department of Energy.

I retired from Boeing in January of 1998. However, management asked me to stay on for a few months as part of their "Flex-Force" to write the necessary Engineering procedures to enable Rocketdyne to become ISO9001 certified. I did stay, but the assignment lasted 11 years. The procedures required frequent updates.

Boeing frequently leads public bus tours and hikes through SSFL. On the tour I took I noticed there were no guides with test-activity backgrounds. I volunteered to relate my experiences; instead they hired me as part of the tour crew. They could have had me for free.

On each monthly tour now, the bus stops at the Alfa III test stand; the passengers disembark, and I describe the struggles and successes we encountered in 1955. I was in the Development Group; we worked with the Test Organization in determining the parameters and sequencing that would allow the Atlas Missile booster and sustainer engines to start and run smoothly for 10 seconds.

As I explain to the tour visitors how, back then, we measured squiggly lines on charts to determine pressures and used slide rules to calculate orifice sizes and flow rates, I get to relive an incredible adventure. Boeing has been active in removing the unused structures, cleaning the soil, and replacing the native vegetation in preparation for the site to be used as open space. So now I can witness the panorama of rare plants, birds, deer and other exotic creatures that populate the area. I was too busy to do that in 1955.

Engineer Bill Vietinghoff at the Alfa Test Stand.

Paul Pinner, Boeing