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A Hidden Gem in North Hollywood

Space Collectors Can Find a Treasure Trove at Norton Sales

By Steve Bartlett

Travel up to some of the rougher sections of North Hollywood and you’ll find auto “chop shops,” weathered red brick buildings, overgrown weeds on main streets, and places that were never repaired after the Northridge quake in ’94. Just around the corner is the site of a famous police shoot-out with heavily-armed bank robbers— you may turn up a stray shell casing if you look hard enough. Amidst these signs of urban decay is one of the true treasure troves for collectors of space memorabilia: Norton Sales. The outside of the building looks like a cross between a run-down department store from the late 1950s and an industrial warehouse.

Peer through the display windows and you’ll start to see some amazing things: rocket engines, nosecones, satellite mock-ups, intricate coiled heat exchangers, and more. As you’re drawn to the front doors, you’ll notice air tanks and breathing masks and strange glass tubes, electronic cabinets from a bygone era, monstrous valve assemblies, and control panels for launching some of this country’s most famous space vehicles.

Norton Sales logo

Go in the back warehouse area (watch your step!) and you’ll find things that aren’t available anywhere outside a museum. And these are for sale! Need a rocket engine from a Saturn V moonship? You can choose between the H-1 and several J-2 engines. Need a vernier engine from an Atlas launch vehicle for your mantlepiece? You can choose from over a hundred of them, both fired units and others still in their factory shipping containers. How about a payload fairing from an Agena rocket? A storage tank for liquid nitrogen? A valve from a Space Shuttle engine? A test console for training astronauts? A kevlar-wound helium sphere from a satellite? An engine from an X-15 rocketplane?

The space collector may wonder how Norton, which has been in business for over fifty years, got hold of such a wide range of space hardware. The secret lies in a little-known rule in the laws governing Federal contracts. After a contractor has finished a contract, they’re required to return the purchased and built hardware to the government or to sell it for scrap. This is to keep contractors from having an unfair advantage over their competition in winning future government work. The contractors usually end up selling their remaining equipment to scrap yards for pennies on the dollar. The Norton family learned about this rule long ago and has been purchasing hardware from aerospace contractors ever since. Some of those contractors have included rocket and satellite builders Rocketdyne, Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, TRW, Hughes, and Northrup-Grumman, among others.

An interesting twist on this government procurement rule is that there’s nothing to prevent a contractor from buying hardware back from a scrap dealer later on. For instance, when Rocketdyne was building its linear aerospike rocket engine system for the X-33 reusable launch vehicle program, they needed a set of turbopumps to deliver propellants to the engine. None of the pumps in production at the time could meet the system requirements and Rocketdyne didn’t want to invest the time and money to build a new set of pumps. So they went to Norton and bought all of Norton’s J-2 engine turbopumps and modified them for the job. When the government cancelled the X-33 program, Norton bought back all of those pumps for much less than they’d originally sold them for.

Would-be rocket scientists learned about Norton Sales a long time ago and have used the company for years as a source for many hard-to-find components. When space entrepreneur Robert Truax was looking for engines for his Sea Dragon launcher project, he went to the North Hollywood establishment to buy dozens of Atlas vernier engines, originally built by Rocketdyne for the government. Hardware that might cost thousands or millions of dollars new can be bought for a few hundred dollars at Norton. Numerous small and medium rocket companies routinely visit the shop on Laurel Canyon Boulevard.

Movie studios have discovered the surplus company as well. Hollywood productions wanting to give projects a high-tech feel, either by having bizarre-looking props or intricate equipment in the background, go to Norton to rent some of their more unusual-looking items.

If you visit Norton Sales, be sure to bring two things: money and comfortable clothes. Bring your money because you’re sure to find something interesting (and because the store is a business, not a museum.) Bring comfortable clothes because much of the equipment there is dirty from having been in storage a long time and you’ll end up having to step around quite a lot of things left in the aisles in their warehouse. Remember when you visit that not all of the items described here are always available: they’re constantly buying, selling, and renting equipment.

Norton Sales is located at 7429 Laurel Canyon Blvd. in North Hollywood, just north of Sherman Way and just east of the 170 Freeway.