Sunday, July 14, 2013

Kevin Starr's California

California has fascinated me since I was a teenager, and I got to live in both the Bay Area and LA/Long Beach when it was compatible with my family situation. So I've been meaning to read Kevin Starr's multi-volume history of California for years. I've finally had time to start, and I started with my favorite era, 1950-1963, to which Starr devotes an entire 576-page volume.

Far be it from me to impeach Starr's history (the book is fascinating), but I did find a few factual errors in his discussion of the California aerospace industry. I don't think any of these errors affected the thrust of his narrative in the least, yet I feel compelled to correct them, because I read about this sort of thing for fun.

1. There is a paragraph about the B-36 bomber that implies it was built in San Diego. While Convair designed and mocked up the plane in San Diego, it was built by Convair in Air Force Plant 4 in Fort Worth, Texas.

2. The Lockheed "Skunk Works"originated not in a "remote location in a skunk-infested field" but rather in beautiful downtown Burbank. The name seems to have come from the smells of a nearby circus tent.

3. Alan Shepard, America's first astronaut, rode into space not on a San Diego-built Atlas, but on a Redstone built by Chrysler in Detroit (!) That was the only manned launch of a Redstone; it was really only used because the Atlas wasn't ready in time. However, Chrysler did go on to build the booster stage of the Saturn I-B that was used in test launches of some Apollo hardware. The Saturn I-B booster was pretty much just 8 Redstones strapped together.

4. Starr credits Rocketdyne of Canoga Park with a few too many programs. As Starr says, Rocketdyne built the engines for Navaho, Redstone, Atlas, Thor, Saturn and Jupiter. But Skybolt (Aerojet) and Titan (Aerojet and United Technology Center) were propelled by engines from other California companies. Minuteman and Polaris had solid rocket motors from several companies over the years, including Aerojet and UTC, but also used motors from Thiokol and Hercules produced in that other great center of American rocketry, Utah. I believe Rocketdyne did produce some small steering rockets for the Minuteman re-entry vehicle.

5. Vandenberg AFB was named for General Hoyt Vandenberg, not Senator Arthur Vandenberg. Arthur was Hoyt's uncle.

6. Aerojet was founded in Azusa, and produced a large number of JATO rockets there, but I am not sure I would agree with Starr that Aerojet was "headquartered" there. Its corporate headquarters were those of its parent company, General Tire and Rubber of Akron, Ohio, while its largest facility was (and is) near Sacramento. General Tire also owned RKO Pictures of Hollywood and a bunch of radio and TV stations in California. (This was truly the age of the conglomerate.)

Come to think of it, this is quite a list of errors. But I'm gonna finish the book anyway.

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