Inspired by Apollo 11, an Aerojet engineer wants to launch a new generation there

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50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 Moon Landing

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It was quite the present. Steven Murphy celebrated his eighth birthday, the family had just spent a few days at the Ponderosa Ranch where the hit TV series “Bonanza” was filmed and they returned to their Mather Air Force Base home just in time to watch astronaut Neil Armstrong take his historic giant leap.

Armstrong’s famous footsteps July 20, 1969 would chart little Steven’s path into a career in aerospace. And his hometown played a starring role. The propulsion systems built by Rancho Cordova’s Aerojet that helped power Apollo 11 into space that July 50 years ago were part of the California connection that put a man on the moon.

But 8-year-old Murphy only knew he was hooked.

“We came back in time to see the landing. I was in third grade then and from then on I was interested in math – I made scale models of the lunar module, I was collecting all of the books,” said Murphy, now 58 and principal system engineer at Aerojet Rocketdyne, where he has worked the last 35 years. “It really inspired me to go into the engineering world.”

California’s connections to the space program run deep, its roots stretching across the Golden State, from the scientific brainpower of Caltech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to the bustling Los Angeles aerospace industry that was home to heavyweights from Lockheed to Hughes to Rockwell and the proving grounds and deep space communications hubs of Southern California’s high desert.

But Aerojet is forever linked to Apollo going back to when Murphy first heard the roar and rumble of test-fired rocket engines as a small child. Aerojet’s role in America’s journeys to space date back to the pioneering Project Gemini space flights of the early 1960s.

Today, he still thrills at the memory.

“It’s still very exciting – listening to that test, to the engines,” he said this week.

A half-century on, Aerojet looks proudly to its role in the Apollo moon missions. Graphics tout the 63 Saturn V engines that “powered Americans to the Moon and brought them safely back to Earth.”

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An Aerojet Rocketdyne graphic that shows how it contributed to Apollo 11. Aerojet Rocketdyne

They range from the cluster of main engines that lifted the massive Saturn V rocket off of the pad at Cape Canaveral to the Lunar Excursion Module or LEM that made history on the moon’s surface to the Apollo Command Module that guided astronauts Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins safely home.

The propulsion system engine for Apollo 11’s service module – the craft Collins piloted as Armstrong and Aldrin roamed the moon’s surface – came out of Rancho Cordova, but in Aerojet fashion, the project’s work was spread across a number of sites: Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and Edwards Air Force Base near Lancaster; Canoga Park, Los Angeles and Redmond, Washington.

The engines developed at Aerojet’s Rancho Cordova facility that spun out of Apollo draw a throughline of modern American space exploration, the names now emblems of U.S. space travel: Viking and Pathfinder; the Space Shuttle and Phoenix; and now, Project Artemis, the mission to return NASA to the moon.

They also draw a line for Murphy, from a Rancho Cordova boy watching with the world those first halting steps on the lunar surface to helping send a new generation of travelers there 50 years later.

“Aerojet tested (engines) here in the ‘60s. We flew every single mission of the Apollo program. Now, Artemis will be launched,” Murphy said. “It’s exciting. I was testing the propulsion system in White Sands (New Mexico) just recently. It’s exciting for the future. It gets exciting every time you think about it, lifting men and women back into space.”

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Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.