You don’t need to be Elon Musk to build a rocket. There is a group of Topangans who made one. You can see it from the Santa Maria Canyon View Ridge Trail. Look north east about a mile as the crow flies from the Voltaire side of the trail. There it is. Pristine as a new Tesla.
Rockets have a storied history in Topanga. You can visit the old Nike missile base site on Saddle Peak. The old Rocketdyne plant was close by in Woodland Hills, and the Jet Propulsion Lab is not far away, in Pasadena. Many of the rocket men and women lived in Topanga. They were said to have a table at Froggy’s. They would speak in hushed tones about the secrets of space travel and life on other planets. Perhaps the moonshot was conceived over a cold one right in our backyard.
I have not visited the rocket, but I have seen it. People wonder how the builders acquired the money to fund it. Some say sales from a vintage clothing store are financing it. Others say a local surfer who made millions by creating a popular surfwear brand came up with the money.
I became connected with this project in the ’80s by my neighbor on Walnut Trail. His name was Richard. He worked in the aerospace industry, and knew several famous astronomers of the day, like Jim Westphal and Martin Schmidt. He once arranged a tour for me and my son Graham of the 200-inch Hale telescope at Mt. Palomar, where I met those astronomers). Richard played guitar in Wally’s band. Richard had a marvelous collection of brightly colored cichlids from Lake Nyasa and Tanganyika in Africa. He was an autodidact. With long hair and the obligatory blue work shirt, jeans, and jean jacket, he was the penultimate” local.”
I lived on Walnut Trail in a 400-square-foot house across the street from Richard. Calling it a shack would be a compliment. It was painted black and had no insulation (it recently sold for $1,200,000). I would mosey down to Richard’s one-story house at the corner of Walnut Trail and Fernwood. One Saturday evening I visited Richard. The only light came from the aquariums. The sound of water bubbling in the tanks powered by Silent Giant air pumps produced a mesmerizing sound.
In a low voice, Richard said that he didn’t have long to live. He found some secret papers at work with formulas on them. After studying them, he realized that these formulas were a way to overcome the speed-of-light barrier. This discovery would make it possible for people to travel to other stars, where there was a likelihood that there would be intelligent life. He wanted to ensure the formulas got into the hands of people who could use them for good.
I moved away and forgot about the formulas. About six months later, I saw Richard playing in a band called the Starmen at Topanga Days. I went up to him after the set to say hello. His sunken eyes and rail-thin body indicated he was not long for this world.
Although weary from a long fight with cancer, he was glad to see me. He told me that there was a woman who lived in Top O Topanga who (along with others) had developed a prototype rocket. All they needed was the engine, and they planned to travel to another star system before they died. Their names were Chloe, Autumn, and Amanda. They were in their 30s. One had been an astronaut, one was a physicist, and the other was a grant writer and fundraiser. Richard died shortly after that.
Chloe, the astronaut, lived in the last manufactured home on Supi Lane. I met her sometime in the spring of 1994. I remember the year because it was not long after the Northridge quake. There were still signs of destruction in Topanga—boulders along the shoulder of Highway 27, construction projects in progress, and the like. Chloe was in her late thirties. She wore jeans, a plain shirt, and a vest with a paisley design. She had long, brown hair. An old Starship album played on a turntable. The cluttered living room with tools and scientific equipment. No photos of loved ones were on the walls.
I needed to figure out if I was doing the right thing. Richard had entrusted me with these papers. Am I turning them over to a stranger? Shouldn’t I get to know her?
I asked her, “Were you in this home at the time of the quake? One of these homes caught fire within minutes of the 6.7 magnitude quake.”
She remembered the fire, but what she remembered most were the stars. She saw the fire and tried to call the Topanga fire department, number 69, but the phone lines were down. She tried to call on her cell (which was a clunky device back then). To get coverage, she got in her car and drove up Mohawk to Pawnee street, where the view of the San Fernando Valley was stunning. It was pitch black. No lights. No cars. The sounds of sirens and barking dogs filled the night. In the sky, stars and satellites glimmered like jewels. It was a phenomenal, once-in-a-lifetime sight. The fire trucks were on their way. She was frozen in awe: the stars—a hundred thousand of the untold trillions out there.
She forced herself out of her reverie, looked at me with clear blue eyes, and said matter of factly, “You have something for me.” Without thinking about what I was doing, I pulled the worn notebook papers out of my briefcase and handed them to her. They were in pencil. They were indecipherable unless you had an advanced math or physics degree. In them was a solution to Einstein’s field equations. It had to do with the metric. She studied them and said in a hushed tone, “These formulas are just what we need to get going. It is the key to the Alcubierre drive.” She was referencing a faster-than-light engine postulated by the Mexican astronomer Miguel Alcubierre Moya.
I asked her where she was going. Her eyes brightened. She said that she would show me, and she led me outside. She asked me to look toward the ocean. She asked me if I could see Sagittarius. I could. Because there are no lights over the Pacific Ocean, you can see the stars clear in the southwest. Near Sagittarius is the Galactic Center. Our galaxy rotates around that center where a massive black hole lurks. Its mass is the equivalent of four million solar masses.
I asked her why. She answered the question with a question (something I dislike). “Why did you move to Topanga?”
“I was looking to get away from the crowded city life in a more rural setting, where you knew your neighbors,” I said. It was a beautiful place to live.
She nodded her head. “That is exactly why I want to travel in space—to find a better place—to get away.” She hoped to find a safer, more peaceful, greener earth where people care for each other and their planet, she said. She hoped to discover more highly evolved beings who would accept her and her friends.
I asked her about the phenomenal costs of the project. She explained that NASA was a boondoggle, a ripoff and that it did not cost all that much to go to space — in relative terms. Technology was the obstacle, and the barriers imposed by the speed of light. Now they had the formulas they would be able to build a quantum drive within five years.
She said she knew that she would never come back; even if she did, the people she loved would have died generations ago. She explained that it was a result of time dilation from traveling at near-light speeds. She didn’t care because her family wasn’t speaking with her. Her friends were too busy with their lives. She yearned for adventure.
I had done my part. I forgot about it. I raised my children, and I practiced law. I divorced and remarried. It all came back to me when I saw the rocket. I looked Richard up on the web recently, but there was nothing about him. He left no trace. I couldn’t locate Chloe or any of her friends. They probably had their quantum drive up and running by now. They were the Wright sisters of the space age. They built a rocket in their backyard, and now they were off.
If you hear a loud boom or see a bright flash at the ridgeline to the east of Top O Topanga, it might be Chloe, Autumn, and Amanda heading toward Sagittarius A. They are hoping to skip the slow evolutionary path of humanity. They are looking for a better tomorrow.