Bowled OverThe first rocket stands erected at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory were built at the Bowl Test Facility, or “Bowl.” Thanks to the Nazi designs brought to the U.S. after the war by SS officer and rocketeer Wernher von Braun, these three stands built in 1949 played a crucial role in America’s burgeoning rocket program. Bowl developed the first tube-wall thrust chamber design for the Navaho rocket in 1953 and was key to the development of the Redstone, Thor, Jupiter, Atlas, and Saturn-V rockets.

Today, the inactive site sits with polluted soil, contaminated with fuel hydrocarbons and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. Runoff from Bowl snakes its way down through exclusive Bell Canyon and into the Los Angeles River. Diesel pollution in site soil measures up to 28,000 parts per million, as we reported in our July 22, 2004 Los Angeles CityBeat & ValleyBeat sidebar article “Blinded by the Light.” That level of diesel is tens of thousands of times its “Field Action Level,” or FAL, where government-mandated remediation is supposed to take place.

See‘s Bowl gallery.

PAHs are of worrisome because some of these compounds have been identified as carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic, meaning that they can also cause birth defects and affect puberty.Bowl Area with San Fernando Valley in background

Benzopyrene, a colorless PAH that targets DNA, was found at Bowl up to 630 parts per billion with detection in five of 53 samples. All five samples were over the FAL. The highest sample was also 63 times the EPA “preliminary remediation goal” for benzopyrene which is a standard created to contain fatal cancers from pollutants to no more than one in a million people.

“The principal Solid Waste Management Units (SWMUs) include: the Bowl Test Stand (Bowl), Component Test Lab III (CTL-III), Component Test Lab V (CTL-V), the Perimeter Pond, R-1 Pond, Area I Burn Pit (AIBP), and the Thermal Treatment Facility (TTF),” according to the Boeing report on the Group 1B area.

The “Primary Chemical Groups Identified, To Date” identified in Group 1B, the documents says, are “volatile organic compounds (VOCs), semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs), total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH), 1,4-dioxane, formaldehyde, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), metals, perchlorate, and dioxins.”Polluted Bowl Area ponds are part of LA River headwaters

These four never-published archival photographs of Bowl, exclusive to, thanks to NASA’s Merrilee Fellows, show these historic stands that tower in the Simi Hills at the western end of the San Fernando Valley. The lead photo of the Vertical Test Stand I, or VTS-I, is an exact copy of a German World War II test facility at Peenemunde that developed and tested the terrifying Nazi V-2 rocket.

The V-2, or Vergeltungswaffe 2, was the first ballistic missile to reach sub-orbital spaceflight and was the forerunner of modern rockets. Over 3,000 V-2s were launched at Allied targets by the German Wehrmacht in World War II, killing an estimated 7,250 military personnel and civilians, mostly in London.

Over 20,000 Mittlebrau-Dora concentration camp inmates died constructing V-2s, with 9000 dying from exhaustion alone. Around 350 of these Nazi slaves were hanged, including 200 for sabotage, with the remainder shot or dying from disease and starvation. Von Braun, an officer in the Waffen-SS from May 1940 until the end of the war when he escaped with 120 scientists to surrender to the Americans, admitted working at the V-2 plant many times but denied ever visiting the nearby concentration camp.Component Test Lab I in Bowl Area

However, von Braun disclosed in an August 15, 1944 letter to the manager of V-2 production that he personally selected labor slaves from the Buchenwald concentration camp to work at the rocket factory, slaves he described 25 years later in an interview as being in “pitiful shape.”

Equally at home in photographs with Hitler and Himmler as well as Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, von Braun’s work on the Apollo Space Program earned him the National Medal of Science from President Ford in 1977.

See‘s Bowl gallery.

Today, the San Fernando Valley is haunted by the contamination plaguing the Bowl Test Facility and much of the sprawling 2,850-acre former Rocketdyne lab. America’s embrace of Nazi rocketry, which costs thousands of innocent lives in Belgium and Britain, still impacts the health and well being of untold numbers of Southern Californians.

25 Years of Award-Winning SSFL/Rocketdyne Reporting


  1. The answer is simple if you look for it. He wanted progress, the ability to expand our knowledge of the universe, Defense, and safety. I lived at the base of the SSFL for the majority of my life and am not sick, dead or in any other way afflicted by terrible plagues.

  2. Makes one sick, (in more ways than one) to think about the possibilities of what exactly this man’s goal was.

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