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.
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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.
To these engineers, Norton’s collection wasn’t a passive reminder of bygone days, but as an active archive that could be mined to build the future.
NASA engineer Kent Chojnacki described the situation on a segment aired on Los Angeles public access TV, “There’s not an Apollo 101 handbook that tells us everything like this is why we did this, this is why we did this… we have a lot of drawings that say what [was built], not so much why.” It’s a bit like having the final answer to a complex calculus problem but not seeing any of the steps taken to derive it—that’s just not the best way to learn math. However, if you locate an original component, you can recreate its design process step by step. Simply buy back the old parts, take them apart, and rebuild them.
Using this trick, NASA could train new teams and update its designs on the cheap.
Of course, NASA wasn’t the only one to figure this out. Around this same time, the so-called new space era was taking off and private enterprises began angling to create their own launch programs.
For entrepreneurs seeking an edge over the competition, Norton’s stock was an invaluable asset.
Using the same reverse engineering techniques as NASA, they could buy up old parts and use them to train engineers and develop technology faster and cheaper. With a few choice objects from Norton, start-up technicians could quickly fill in gaps in their knowledge or rapidly improve and iterate on what worked in the past. As word got out, Norton became a destination for anyone looking to get into space. “Demand got really big. It was huge,” says Guzman, “if I told you the names of some people that I talked to, it would just blow your mind like really Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, people like that.”
But complex engines and other elaborate pieces weren’t the only way Norton fueled the new space boom. The scrapyard also supplied new spacers with cheap access to less glamorous parts like regulators, gauges, and pumps. During Apollo’s heyday, NASA’s spending topped out at nearly 5% of the federal budget, and the agency’s subcontractors in California were churning out basic parts at an astronomical scale. While some of these were used, a huge percentage weren’t. Instead, they were bought up by the Holstroms.
“Let me ask you a question,” says Guzman, “there’s people that don’t don’t believe the US actually went to the moon… how do you know we went?” After a pause, he sweeps his hand to the clutter around the warehouse, laughing, “I tell them, ‘you think all of this is fake?’ I used to have whole rooms full of solenoids! What else did they build five million solenoids for?”
Norton’s massive stores of these simpler components were a boon for younger firms in need of cheap parts. While often not in perfect flight shape, these vintage items were good enough for ground support, testing, and other ancillary roles. Companies like Scaled Composites and Blue Origin would purchase crates of Norton’s solenoids by the dozen. Guzman recalls speaking with Peter Beck, the founder of the launch company Rocket Lab. He was looking for a specific valve and Norton just happened to have thousands. Beck was astounded, “he was like, you know, in New Zealand, I had to make my own stuff in a machine shop. And here you're going to walk to a surplus place and there's tons and tons of everything. The resources in the United States are mind-blowing.” In this way, California’s first era of state-backed aerospace production gave the county’s new upstarts a distinct advantage, and Norton helped make it possible.
Eventually, the new space trade came to an end.
A single launch company bought up much of Norton’s remaining stock, partially for their own use, and partially to get it off the market for everyone else. Left with a warehouse full of miscellaneous gizmos, Guzman shifted the business completely toward Hollywood. He’s gotten back into designing special effects and even begun building custom pieces that combine the raw look of his original parts with new, stylish touches and flare. At the front of the shop, Guzman shows me his latest creation, a tall stack of copper tubing and analog dials. He flips a switch and a constellation of colorful LEDs spring to life around the structure—suddenly the room feels more like Forbidden Planet or a far-off space station than a dusty garage between a carwash and sheet metal fabricator. As we stand in the alien glow, I ask Guzman how he feels about his legacy of helping the space industry find its footing for a new generation. He demurs, “You know, I just do what I like, and I've met a lot of really interesting people, too. But really, I’ve been lucky to find this niche. It’s just something that I’ve loved doing.”