America’s Chernobyl- Exploring NASA’s Most Infamous Cold War Test Site

Outskirts of Los Angeles, CA

Apollo Saturn V F1 engine test stand

They say it’s impossible to travel back in time…

We had set our feet inside the first structure we encountered behind the razor wire. It seemed like a type of mechanic’s storage room, rusted away from decades of abandonment. We donned our gas masks to give us peace of mind from asbestos, and crept in. Ancient computers and hardwire lined the walls, with nobs reading “FIRE ENGINES” and “INITIATE LAUNCH SEQUENCE”. Reading these controls, our anxiety just about went away for pure excitement as we realized there would be no security patrols. We looked up to a colossal structure that resembled a water tower. Getting closer, we saw “DANGER: HYDROGEN GAS” labeled on the side of this bright blue tank. My friend and I looked at each other, and read each other’s minds: we were going to climb this son-of-a-bitch. I felt pretty secure during the initial 30 feet of climbing (the initial segment of the ladder was protected by a safety ring). My palms really began to sweat when I reached the spiraling staircase that wrapped around the structure. Inching my way forward, I found my way to the top and looked down the vent that revealed the inside of the tank. Of course, all of the gas was drained a long time ago, so we felt safe to relax up here before planning our next move.

Once we made our way down, we walked up to the first test stand- the real attraction that we came here for. Much of the structure was stripped away to its frame, but it was still an awesome sight to behold. We heard rumors that contractors were just about to demolish the tower, so we felt incredibly lucky to photograph it while it was still there. From here, we could see the other test stands, as well as the infamous location where a nuclear reactor melted down and released tons of radiation into the atmosphere. Worried about construction crews or security on that end, we choose to end our journey here and quickly made our way back home.

The Site

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory was a complex of industrial research and development facilities located on a 2,668-acre portion of the Southern California Simi Hills in Simi Valley, California. The site was widely recognized as one of the most crucial facilities of the space race. Scientists at the site were primary responsible for developing the following:

  • Engines for the Army’s Redstone (an advanced short-range version of the German V-2)
  • The Army Jupiter intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM); the Air Force’s counterpart IRBM, the Thor.
  • Engines for the Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM)
  • Twin combustion chamber alcohol/liquid oxygen booster engine for the Navaho, a large, intercontinental cruise missile that never became operational.
  • The F-1 engine that was eventually used as one of a cluster of engines powering the Apollo booster.

Despite its historic legacy, the site is stepped in controversy. During the 1950’s, top secret nuclear research was conducted here- which culminated with the building of the world’s first sodium nuclear reactor. In July, 1959, the reactor suffered a partial nuclear meltdown that has been named “the worst in U.S. history”, releasing an undisclosed amount of radiation, but thought to be much more than the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979. The incident was kept secret until just recently, when a group of UCLA professors released a damming report on elevated cancer rates in the Simi Area as a result of the still present radiation. The coverup, and subsequent lack of effort to clean up toxins from the site have generated significant controversy in my community.

I have eerie memories of the deafening engine tests that took place as I grew up not to far over the hills from the site. These final engine tests took place until I was in the 4th grade, and I grew up with almost no knowledge of where these sounds came from. At some point after graduating high school, I stumbled on an article about SSFL, and my curiosity skyrocketed.

As I read more about this irradiated candyland of exploration, I knew it would be my first truly risky adventure. Aside from the incredibly high levels of radiation present in the soil and some old structures, the site is has intense security. From my online conversations with the few people who managed to sneak in, the process is grueling: requiring a 6 mile hike in and out which almost necessitates overnight camping at the site. Camping here would be brutal, the site is truly one of scariest places I’ve ever been. Factor that in with 24/7 security, roaming coyotes, and radiation, I was hell bent on getting in without having to stay over night. Luckily, I found a much easier access point to the site which cut my travel time significantly.

Chernobyl-Era Gas Masks? Totally Necessary.
Coca Site Test Stand
This Would Make a Big, Big Boom
Climbing it Was Horrifying
Ancient Computer Room that Controlled Hydrogen Tank
Bet your first IPod has more processing power than this bad boy
The Area We Explored was just 10% of the Entire Property

If you enjoyed this article, check out my adventure blog (lifesarisk.com), and discover the how to’s of exploring locations just like this!

DISCLAIMER: Urban Exploration is dangerous and requires careful research and planning. Never steal/vandalize/misplace anything you find. Keep sites as you found them and be respectful.