Norton Space Props Was El Dorado for a Burgeoning Launch Industry

Take a drive up the 101 from Hollywood, head over the hills and past the studio lots to the dusty outskirts of Sun Valley.

It’s not a glamorous Los Angeles destination; this area doesn’t attract starry-eyed tourists like Rodeo Drive or the Walk of Fame. Out here, among the body shops, used car lots, and strip mall pawn brokers is a modest warehouse with a hand-painted marquee reading N.S. Aerospace. Welcome to Norton Space Props.

This unassuming business has been a low-key destination in the space world for more than seven decades. What looks at first glance like just another cut-rate junkyard was actually a vital bridge connecting the first space age to the current new space era. Thanks to some prescient hoarding and canny engineering, this salvage outlet became a site where old technology, once lost, came roaring back to life.

I made my own pilgrimage to the valley in December of 2022. I’d been exploring the aerospace industry in and around Los Angeles as part of the ARIES Project, an ethnographic initiative documenting the many ways people and societies relate to space. Throughout the fall, the name Norton came up periodically as I cruised around the LA space circuit: a short entry in Atlas Obscura here, an offhand comment from a tipsy machinist at an industry happy hour there.

One rainy night, I found myself in a suburban garage in Torrance with two engineers showing off their DIY liquid-propellant rocket.

Between bits of industry gossip, they explained that many of its parts were harvested from scrap yards around the city. “Have you ever heard of this place up north of Hollywood?” I asked. The response was immediate, “Of course! I’ve been there, we’ve all been there. Everyone knows about Norton.”

Even if you haven’t been to Norton Space Props, chances are you’ve seen their wares. If you’ve watched a film set in orbit or enjoyed a cinematic romp through the cosmos, you’ve spotted pieces from the Norton Space collection. This business has become one of Hollywood’s go-to suppliers for the type of objects and furnishings needed to craft an alluringly scientific mise en scène, realistic or fantastic. Need industrial fixtures and complex piping for your spaceship exteriors? You’ll find them here. Want an analog board dense with buttons and knobs for a retro control room look? Norton’s got you covered.

“I call this the Mandalorian area,” says Carlos Guzman, pointing to a pile of metallic panels stacked and strewn haphazardly in a corner, “these were all over that show.” Guzman is the current owner and operator of Norton. A stout man in his 50s, he wears a short beard flecked with gray and, on the day we met, a black ball cap tucked low over his eyes. He began working at Norton in the 90s. Before then, the shop, called Norton Sales, was a family affair, owned by Norton J. Holstrom, a local restauranteur, and his son, Norton Holstrom Jr., a self-professed “junkie.” When the original Nortons retired, Guzman took over; “by the time they were selling, I was basically running the place. No one would buy it without me staying on [as staff]. So I just bought it myself.”

Guzman shows me around the warehouse like a seasoned librarian navigating his archives.

We shuffle between shelves of clunky analog voltmeters and pass what appears to be a large communications satellite. As we go, he gently picks up different objects and calmly describes their provenance. Seemingly every piece, no matter how obscure, has a story, and Guzman knows it. What’s remarkable about this collection is its pedigree. The props and set dressings at Norton are not mere tchotchkes or mock-ups. For the most part, everything here is actual aerospace equipment—real engines, real solenoids, and real avionics units. Today, this authenticity makes everything look stellar on the silver screen. However, a few years ago it made Norton a gold mine for new space upstarts looking for a boost. Understanding why requires a detour in the scrapyard of history.

The story of Norton Space Props is bound up in southern California’s industrial past. While the military spending of World War II made Los Angeles a major manufacturing hub, it was the Space Race that transformed the region into an aerospace powerhouse. When NASA launched the Apollo program in the 60s, it relied on a network of hundreds of private firms to design and build components for its lunar missions. Rocketdyne, Aerojet, and Douglas Aircraft, as well as numerous other companies in and around LA all scored big contracts to contribute. By the end of the decade, nearly half a million highly skilled workers were employed churning out aviation and space equipment. It was around this time that Holstrom Sr., fueled by a keen business sense and mild hoarding instinct, began snapping up discard and scrap items from factories around the region. Soon, he had put together a brisk business buying and reselling parts as a surplus outlet.

Though, as the 60s rolled into the 70s and the 80s, things changed. Politics pushed NASA to tighten its budget and adjust its priorities. The agency’s once mighty stream of lucrative contracts dried up to a trickle. The whole sector slumped into a so-called “space recession.” This slowdown, combined with the broader wave of deindustrialization rocking the country, forced many local aerospace firms to shift gears or close shop. As companies wound down operations and workers decamped or retired, large swaths of hard-won engineering know-how were scattered and lost. Luckily, Holstrom swept in to buy up what physical traces were left behind. Piles of pneumatic valves, thrust chambers, gas tanks, and the occasional fully-formed rocket engine accumulated in his multiple warehouses around the Valley.

Much has been written about space junk, often highlighting the unruly qualities of the material actually sent to space.

There’s a wide consensus that discarded boosters, dead satellites, and minuscule bits of space debris can not only disrupt current operations but pose both environmental threats and safety concerns for people in space and on Earth. Many futurists will speak in grave terms about the ever-looming threat the Kessler syndrome poses to humanity’s space ambitions. However, as Alice Gorman, an Australian archeologist affectionately known as Dr. Space Junk points out in her book Dr. Space Junk Vs. The Universe, objects in orbit aren’t just threats. They “can be regarded as archaeological artifacts, the material record of a particular phase in human social and technological development,”

In Gorman’s view, even a dead satellite whipping through space stands as a crucial piece of material heritage, a physical record of past human endeavors that still hold important meaning in the present. This same premise holds for space junk here on earth. For those interested in aviation history, Norton’s artifacts could hold tremendous sentimental value. Many avid collectors came to acquire prized pieces for their own enjoyment—one wealthy enthusiast, a CEO of a major tech company, walked out with an XLR-99 engine, a serious piece of equipment that originally powered the X-15 hypersonic jet.

However, as a renewed push toward space gained traction in the early 2000s, another type of scrap enthusiast began showing up. NASA, once again chartered to aim for the moon, set about reclaiming what was lost during the space recession.

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