Lawmakers press NASA to save historic rocket test stands at Santa Susana Field Lab

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SIMI VALLEY >> It had tested the rocket engines that launched the first American astronauts into space, and some of the last.

And as local officials push for a more stringent environmental cleanup of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, federal lawmakers are urging NASA to preserve its historic rocket test stands.

Despite their historical significance, they say the stands are at risk of the wrecking ball as workers remove contaminated dirt from the nearly 2,700-acre lab above Simi Valley that helped develop rocket engines for a half century after World War II.

“We understand the need to complete the cleanup of toxic chemicals in the area from the many years of research and testing,” said Rep. Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, a co-author of a bipartisan letter Tuesday to Robert Lightfoot, acting administrator for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

“However, the environmental protection mission and the preservation of such an important piece of our shared history are not mutually exclusive goals,” it said. “It would be a tragedy to lose these test stands and deny future generations the ability to connect with this history and humanity’s ongoing search for a better understanding of our universe.”

The letter was also signed by Reps. Julia Brownley, D-Thousand Oaks; Tony Cárdenas, D-Panorama City; Adam Schiff, D-Burbank; and Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks.

RELATED STORY: LA County to press for full cleanup of Santa Susana Field Laboratory

Knight, who represents a sliver of the north San Fernando Valley, is the son of the late William “Pete” Knight, a lawmaker and former U.S. Air Force test pilot famous for breaking postwar speed records.

First built in 1949, the vertical test stands at the sprawling Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the Simi Hills between Chatsworth and Simi Valley led to pioneering aeronautics achievements by Rocketdyne Propulsion & Power, based in Canoga Park.

They include the first American-made large liquid propellant rocket engine, the Mercury-Redstone rocket, which launched the first American astronaut and satellite into space and the Saturn and Apollo missions, including the first missions to land astronauts on the moon in 1969.

And the Space Transportation System, whose Space Shuttles flew 542,398,878 miles without an engine mishap before retiring in July 2011.

RELATED STORY: Part of San Fernando Valley’s storied space race history vanishes

The field lab, which closed in 2006 after five decades of developing rocket engines and nuclear reactor, is in the middle of a multi-billion-dollar environmental cleanup.


Last week, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors joined Ventura County and the city of Los Angeles in calling for a full clean-up of the contaminated site owned by Boeing, NASA and the Department of Energy.

Though the site is in Ventura County — about two miles from the border of Los Angeles County — radioactive and chemical contaminants remaining in the soil, stormwater runoff and airborne dust particles have affected residents in the western San Fernando Valley, according to Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.

Kuehl and Supervisor Kathryn Barger supported demanding the highest level of cleanup — “back to the site’s native environmental state” — of the portion of land controlled by the DOE.

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