Memory Musings: The 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake

In case you were wondering about the recent posts about space history and California, I’m scheduled to head to Sunnyvale in June to give a talk about Sunnyvale Air Force Station (aka Onizuka Air Force Base, the “Blue Cube”). I’ve been looking back at the historic material on the base and its operations to refresh my “old man brain”, yet I keep slipping down memory lane.

Today’s chronological back-peddling also came about while reading some curriculum material from my kids’ school. Inside a history block about the Space Race, I found an error that most people would have ignored. The erroneous fact was linking the Space Shuttle Endeavour with launching the Galileo and Magellan space probes. I wrote a nice letter to the person who created the curriculum and provided the corrected facts – it was the shuttle Atlantis that launched both in the late 1980s, not the early 1990s when Endeavour was used.

The comment, however, brought up a horrifying event that I did not experience firsthand: the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. My family had already relocated to New Mexico by this time, but I remember watching the World Series on television… mostly because I loved the SF Giants and despised the Oakland A’s. (Truth be told, I had only watched Giants games at Candlestick Park; the one time my dad went to Coliseum, he took my sister. Fate might created another A’s fan had I gone. Oh well…)

My memories of that night in 1989 are a bit sketchy, but when our local (base) library began throwing out magazines, I grabbed this issue before it hit the trash heap. You can see how banged up it is now.

Cover of the 30 October 1989 Issue of Sports Illustrated

I wrote an article in The Space Review (“Rock-solid (Blue) Cube: Galileo and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake,” 19 October 2020) about how the workers at Onizuka AFB courageously performed their duties in the hours after the quake struck. For those of you who have never been exposed to earthquakes, the primary danger is the main quake, but the lingering threat of aftershocks hangs over like Damocles’ Sword.

At least the GSA safes didn’t tip over, right?

Images of the building interiors surprised the heck out of me. I knew the Blue Cube had been designed (via 1960 construction standards) to be earthquake-resistant; until I saw those ’89 images, I always thought the building suffered no damage.

Boy was I wrong.

I’m not a metallurgist, but I think having a steel beam crack, like in the image below, is a really bad thing, especially if the building is still occupied.

Cracked iron beam that escaped initial damage detection

I’m excited to have the opportunity in June to meet some of the folks who worked at Onizuka AFB and the Lockheed Missiles and Space Company during those decades. I’m sure the photos and talk will bring back their memories of days spent at the Birthplace of Space Reconnaissance.

I can’t wait to chat with them.


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