These Valley engineers ‘provided the lift’ to Apollo space mission, taking area from ‘orange groves to pioneers’
Shelby Jacobs grew up just north of the San Fernando Valley in Val Verde. In his senior year of high school, he scored high marks in both math and science, so he chose a career in engineering, even though he did not know much about the profession.
His high school principal found out about his career aspirations and eventually told him, “Shelby, there are no black engineers.”
But Shelby defied racial barriers and became a mechanical engineer with Rocketdyne in Canoga Park.
For Rocketdyne, Jacobs helped develop the camera system that took many iconic photos from space. He was also one of eight black engineers of 5,000 who worked on the Apollo 11 mission, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
To celebrate the Apollo mission’s anniversary, L.A. City Councilman Bob Blumenfield — who represents a Valley area where engineers thrived in the Apollo mission’s heyday — recognized Jacobs and two other engineers: Percy Brown and Larry Mizell, who both worked on the Apollo Lunar Module, which made it possible to land on the moon.
In doing so at Wednesday’s L.A. City Council meeting, he highlighted three Apollo mission contributors who are often not the focal points of the media. He also highlighted how important the San Fernando Valley was to the Apollo 11 mission through Rocketdyne’s development of the F-1 engine — the main launch vehicle of the Apollo program.
“We provided the lift as a West Valley with the brains and the know-how to send someone to the Moon and to fuel the NASA program,” Blumenfield said. “We went from orange groves to space pioneers… That is part of our fiber as Valley people. We need to appreciate that history and understand it.”
Before the beginning of a busy City Council meeting, the three engineers told their stories about their work on the Apollo mission. They were joined by space historian Rod Pyle, president of the Columbia Memorial Space Center Benjamin Dickow, and current Aerojet Rocketdyne managers Karl Miller and Samantha Fuchs. They each celebrated Apollo’s contributions to today’s technology and tomorrow’s exploration of space.
“If it wasn’t for space exploration 50 years ago on the Apollo program, we would never be where we are technologically,” Dickow said. “All of our micro-electronics, propulsion systems, everything, all came out of that program.”
The mission meant different things for everyone. As Pyle explained, for some, it was a way to beat the Russians in the space race. For others like Miller and Fuchs, it provided a blueprint for future space exploration and technological advancements. For Jacobs, who is now 84, it was simply special that everyone in the world was watching what he helped produce in Canoga Park.
“I was just delighted to be a part of it because it was said that I couldn’t be,” Jacobs said. “It was an impossible dream.”
Today, Rocketdyne is known as Aerojet Rocketdyne and still has an office in Canoga Park. As Miller explained, the history of Apollo 11 is not only important to look back on, it also pushes us to the future.
As a child growing up in Woodland Hills, Miller was always excited about the rumbling of rocket engines in the hills. While Miller never worked on the Apollo mission, it was those rumbling hills that inspired him to make a career with Aerojet Rocketdyne. Now, as managers at Aerojet Rocketdyne, he and Fuchs reflect on what they learned from Apollo 11 to go back to space, which advances modern technology.
Fuchs explains modern technology stands on the backs of the Apollo program. Because of Apollo, cell phones and micro-electronics can exist, she said.
“It’s not just the history of our Valley,” Blumenfield said. “It’s the history of the county and the world that’s grounded in the San Fernando Valley.”