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Rocket scientists, car customizers flock to buy used NASA parts

Jonathan Goff and his boss, David Masten (right), examined an Apollo-era engine at Norton Sales in North Hollywood, Calif. (Stephen Osman./los angeles times)

LOS ANGELES -- Mounds of titanium and steel glinted in the afternoon sun, valves and pipes protruding in all directions like half-formed metal organisms.

In one corner of the warehouse was a twin of the Apollo command module engine that brought astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong back from the moon nearly 40 years ago. Nearby was the second stage motor for a Saturn V, the most powerful rocket ever used in the US space program.

Jonathan Goff, a 26-year-old rocket engineer, climbed atop a mound of titanium spheres once used to store highly explosive liquid oxygen rocket fuel and scanned the area for used rocket parts. "This is definitely a cool place," he said.

For almost five decades, Norton Sales in North Hollywood has been collecting the nuts, bolts, and heat exchangers from the rockets that helped American astronauts shrug off the steely embrace of gravity. This is where the bits and pieces of America's space program came to die.

Through most of its history, the space junkyard has served as part museum and part fantasy camp for wealthy collectors willing to plunk down thousands of dollars for a piece of an Apollo rocket. Some of its customers have been car customizers looking for cheap, spaceflight-grade hydraulic valves.

Now, after decades of NASA's dominance of space flight, private rocketeers are launching their own commercial space industry -- and they are flocking to Norton Sales.

The Apollo command module engine goes for $1.5 million. That J-2 engine for the Saturn V? Yours for $500,000. A Thor rocket engine costs a modest $75,000.

The new generation of rocketeers is less interested in big-ticket items than in the smaller pieces of scrap and surplus that they can use to build prototypes, often for a dime on the dollar of what it would cost to buy new parts.

"This is like the holy grail for a rocket enthusiast without much money," said Tim Pickens, president of Orion Propulsion, a rocket services company in Huntsville, Ala.

Norton has supplied parts to most of the new space rocketeers, including Burt Rutan's Mojave-based Scaled Composites, which built the first privately funded manned craft to reach the edge of space, and Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp. in El Segundo, which launched the first privately funded craft to reach low Earth orbit in April, though it malfunctioned after half an orbit.

From the outside, Norton's 12,000-square-foot warehouse doesn't look much like a hub of the budding commercial space flight industry. A misspelled sign on the wall reads: "Space Age Junk and Modern Collectables."

It's a standard repair-shop culture with dusty glass counters and autographed pictures of celebrities. The celebrities come in looking for hydraulic pumps that they adapt to make cars jump up and down like rearing stallions.

Goff and his boss, Dave Masten, ambled past the "Rocketdyne aisle," filled with parts made by that company. The aisle is still nearly impassable, with piles of parts 2 feet deep.

Norton Sales was founded by Sherman Oaks restaurateur Norton J. Holstrom, who began buying scrap rocket parts in the early 1960s. His timing was perfect.

The United States, stung by the launch of Sputnik in 1957, was turning its industrial might to the space race with the Soviet Union. Many of America's biggest space and defense contractors had operations in Los Angeles, and they were turning out rocket motors as fast as Congress could write the checks.

Spending on NASA today accounts for just 0.7 percent of the federal budget. Back then it was nearly 10 times more. Surplus dealers hauled away the excess.

At its height, the firm operated out of six buildings. Two trucks a day made the rounds of the big contractors, such as Douglas Aircraft Co., Aerojet, and Rocketdyne.

Today, few space junkmen are left. The decimation of the aerospace industry in Southern California in the 1980s hit the junkers as hard as it hit the engineering community.

When Carlos Guzman, a Guatemalan immigrant, took over the company several years ago, the financials were uncertain, he said. But President Bush's space initiative, which proposes to return to the moon by 2020, has helped spur new interest in old rocket parts.

As NASA busies itself with getting to the moon again, it is encouraging the growth of a private space industry that could operate in low-Earth orbit.

Guzman said he sells about $700,000 a year in merchandise and the company is profitable.

But there are still challenges, especially since 9/11. Tougher export rules prevent Guzman from selling much stock overseas. It's no longer easy to obtain old rocket parts, either. "This stuff is tough to get nowadays," he said.