Rocket testers fondly recall Sacramento’s role in space race

More than four decades ago, part of the Saturn V rocket that sent astronaut Neil Armstrong to the moon was tested in the Sacramento area.

“When we were doing it, you would hear a big roar,” said Don Brincka, former testing director for Douglas Aircraft Co. “I lived in Carmichael, and you knew when it was firing. It was part of the community.”

Brincka, 82, will talk about his work at the former Douglas rocket test facility this weekend at the Discovery Museum Science and Space Center in Sacramento. As part of its international “Observe the Moon Night” celebration, the museum will show several Rocketdyne films about the moon missions.

“I’m just excited to show all this to people,” said Bernta Bechler, lead flight director of the Challenger Learning Center at the museum. “To know that the testing was being done right here is incredible. It shows that this area played a very important role in the space program.”

From 1964 to 1971, the third stage of the Saturn V rocket, the S-IVB, was put through its paces at Complex Beta-Sacramento, located at Sunrise Boulevard and Douglas Road in what is now Rancho Cordova. The S-IVB played a critical role in the moon missions as it was the part of the Saturn V rocket that would push the space capsule beyond the Earth’s atmosphere and toward the moon.

“We would fire the engine for a short period of time to put the capsule into Earth orbit,” said Brincka. The space capsule “would go around the Earth, and we checked to make sure that it was operating within certain parameters.”

After the space capsule reached a certain point in orbit around Earth, the engine of the S-IVB would be fired again for four to five minutes to get the capsule to the moon. “There was a very narrow gap to get into moon trajectory,” he said. “Once that capsule got to the moon, it would get caught in the moon’s orbit. So the timing was critical.”

According to Brincka, the test site was developed by Douglas Aircraft in 1956 to test the Thor rocket, which was used to launch intermediate range ballistic missiles. When the company got the contract in 1960 to produce the S-IV, a precursor to the S-IVB, the test stands for the Thor rocket were retrofitted.

“It (S-IV) was part of the Saturn 1 program, and it was a two-stage vehicle,” said Brincka. “NASA wanted to prove the concept of using stages in flight.”

The S-IV was 18.5 feet in diameter, 40 feet long and weighed about 15,000 pounds. Initially, the first few S-IVs traveled to Sacramento by water and land. The stages were transported by ship from Huntington Beach to San Francisco. From there, they were put on a barge and sent up the Sacramento River to a special dock that had been built for them in Hood. Then, the S-IVs were placed on a flatbed trailer and driven to the Sacramento test site using backcountry roads.

“The biggest problem was that we had to take down telephone poles and trees out to make the trip,” recalled Brincka. Some of the photos in the slideshow depict crews climbing up telephone poles and cutting trees.

After the S-IVs were tested, they were loaded on a modified plane, called a Guppy, and flown from Mather Air Force Base to Cape Canaveral, Fla., where the rest of the Saturn V rocket was assembled.

Brincka believes that only two to four of the S-IVs were transported by ship and truck to the testing site. Thereafter, the Guppy transported the devices from Huntington Beach to Mather Air Force Base, which was close to the testing facility.

Terri Pennello, whose father was a NASA aerospace engineer, said she was reminded of the transport of the S-IVs when she watched the space shuttle Endeavor moving through the streets of Los Angeles last year. “I just realized that we had that happen here,” she said.

Pennello, 58, will present a slideshow this weekend at the Discovery Museum of never-before-seen photos from the Douglas Aircraft. The black-and-white images once belonged to a former Douglas Aircraft technician, Jim Porter, who stored them in his Sacramento garage.

Pennello will also show off her father’s NASA memorabilia collection at the museum. Julian Pennello worked on the J-2 engine, which powered the S-IVB, the third stage of the Saturn V rocket.

When Douglas Aircraft won the bid to develop and build the S-IVB, new test stands were built to accommodate the larger size of the unit, which was 22 feet in diameter and 60 feet long. A larger plane, called the Super Guppy, was used to transport the S-IVB.

Brinck said that 19 of the S-IVBs were tested at the Sacramento facility from 1964 to 1971. One S-IVB scheduled for flight exploded while sitting on the test stand, when a faulty weld on a helium tank sent it into the liquid oxygen and hydrogen tanks. The explosion, which occurred on Jan. 20, 1967, stopped all work on the space program.

“We had to find out what the problem was and retrofit all the stages,” said Brincka. “It caused an interruption in the flow of the stages, but we still made the goal of putting a man on the moon before 1970.”

The test facility closed around 1971, when the testing program for the Saturn V rocket ended, he said.

Brincka left Douglas to work for Aerojet in 1972. He said it was seven years before Douglas decided to dismantle the test site. NASA took all the test equipment. Between 1978 and 1980, Douglas sold off various buildings and parcels of land from the Complex Beta-Sacramento site. Much of what used to be the test facility is now owned by Aerojet and is unused.

Four concrete abutments that served as the base for the test stands are all that remains of the former Douglas S-IVB test facility today.

“It was really exciting,” Brincka said. “We were doing things that were never done before with the mission to the moon. It was fraught with failure, and we spent a lot of time researching everything that could go wrong. We had to do a lot of thinking.”