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Friday, Jan 27, 2023
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Sending Man to the Moon Giant Leap for Valley Too

To the world it is known as Apollo 11 but to Paul Coffman the rocket that launched in July 1969 will always be known as No. SA-506. As a manager and later as a supporting testing engineer, Coffman was among the thousands of workers at Rocketdyne in Canoga Park that created the engines that fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s pledge to send men to the moon and return them safely by the end of the 1960s. The space program made Rocketdyne the single biggest employer in the San Fernando Valley during that decade. For much of the 1950s, the company had made engines for ballistic missiles but with Apollo and its Saturn V rocket weighing 6 million pounds, the engineers there were challenged like never before and did it under the pressure of finishing before the calendar page turned to 1970. “It was an exciting, stressful and enjoyable time,” said Coffman, a Valley native who still lives here when not spending time at a second home in Oregon. Under different ownership in the post-Apollo years, the company continued its role in the space program by designing and manufacturing the main engines for the space shuttle. Now known as Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne engineers there the successors to Coffman’s generation design the J-2X engine for future manned missions, including a possible return to the moon. While the Canoga Park facility has no plans to mark the 40th anniversary of when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, the Huntsville, Ala. location unveiled this month an interactive exhibit on the Saturn V propulsion systems including a mock test bunker that gives visitors a sense of the sound and vibrations that occurred during a test of the F-1 engine. Loud noises The actual testing of the F-1 took place out at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert. While the smaller J-2 engines were tested at the Santa Susanna facility near Chatsworth, the F-1 engine was just too big and too loud for the neighborhood to take, recalled Bob Biggs, another engineer from the Apollo era who continues to serve as principal engineer at Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. When watching the Saturn V lift off from the launch pad in an unmanned flight in 1967, Biggs had a great feeling of accomplishment. He felt much the same way two years later when the rocket took the Apollo 11 crew into space. “I took a lot of self-satisfaction people would expect to look for when man landed on the moon,” Biggs said. Made up of three stages, the Saturn V lifted from its launching pad under the power of five F-1 engines. Five J-2 engines propelled the second stage to escape the earth’s gravity, and a single J-2 put the spacecraft (the command module and lunar lander) into a low-earth orbit and then shut down. The engine was restarted to start the craft on the 250,000-mile journey to the moon. The design for the J-2 originated from the work Coffman and others had done for ballistic missiles combined with work done on a cancelled rocket program dating from the early 1960s. The F-1 dated back to the late 1950s. Many of the problems Biggs, Coffman and other engineers faced had to do with the size of the size of the engines that significantly stretched the known technology of the time. There were combustion problems. Engines shut down prematurely or in the case of the J-2 failed to reignite when needed. The heat generated when the engines did start would damage the liquid oxygen turbo pumps that were the purview of Joe Stangeland, a lead engineer at Rocketdyne on the Apollo project who still does consulting work for his former employer. As the program was schedule driven to meet the deadline set by Kennedy, work weeks of 60 hours or 70 hours were not unheard of to address the problems presented by the engines. While a main frame computer was available at times, the other methods the engineers used are practically archaic when viewed from the 21st century. “We did most of our work with slide rules and hand calculations,” Stangeland said. Peak employment Employment at Rocketdyne in Canoga Park peaked at or around 20,000 workers and then suddenly diminished to less than 3,000 by the time of the last Apollo mission in 1972. Biggs cannot recall those days without thinking of the manpower involved and all the people who were proud to work on the rocket engines but had also worked themselves out of a job. He felt fortunate that he was transferred to another project before the layoffs started. Coffman and Stangeland both had long careers with the rocket engine manufacturer and remain active in new developments taking place there. Still, what takes place in Canoga Park these days cannot compare to years of the space race when the best talent, be it from the Valley like Coffman, or from other parts of the country like Stangeland and Biggs, came together in an exciting and far-reaching pursuit. “My love for airplanes was surpassed by rocket engines,” Stangeland said.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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