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6.14.11: A Product of the Space Age, Not Just a Symbol

Space Needle History: Tuesday on the Road

Knute Berger, Writer-in-Residence 

A Product of the Space Age, Not Just a Symbol

People think of the Space Needle as a symbol of the Space Age, but it is more than that: It benefited from real rocket know-how. That's due in part to the role of the Needle's consulting structural engineer, the late John K. Minasian.

I'm not in residence at the Needle this week, but visiting Southern California where I had a chance to meet with members of Minasian's family, his son Larry Minasian and his granddaughter Jennifer Trotoux, an architectural historian. They let me comb through the records kept by the man who engineered the Needle into existence.

Minasian was brought in on the Needle project to figure out how to actually build it and assist John Graham & Co. architects. How much steel would be needed? What size? How much would it weigh? How to build it to be strong enough not to fall over due to wind or earthquake?

A man of Armenian ancestry, born in Egypt, raised in New Jersey, Minasian was a graduate of CalTech, a consulting structural engineer who advised Lloyd's of London, and associate professor of engineering at Los Angeles State College when he received a call to help with the Needle. Minasian was an expert in building towers. He had a hand in the construction of over 100 TV and radio towers throughout the West. It was a TV tower in Stuttgart, Germany, by the way, that first inspired the Space Needle.

But Minasian had also worked on missile and rocket gantry towers at Cape Canaveral, ground zero of the U.S. space program. A gantry is the steel structure that holds a rocket in place prior to launch. That expertise helped prepare him for the challenge of getting the Needle up and running in 1962. Minasian built gantry towers for the Saturn rocket and Atlas missile projects at the Cape.

Shortly before he signed on to the Needle effort, Minasian could marvel at the first successful launch of a Saturn rocket. In Minasian's papers there is a copy of the front page of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner for Oct. 27, 1961, with a huge headline blaring "U.S. LAUNCHES WORLD'S BIGGEST SUPER-ROCKET" It was Minasian's metallic gantry that supported it, a steel structure as tall as a 31-story building, on wheels. It was the Saturn program that eventually put a man on the moon, a mission that President John F. Kennedy had just made a priority in May of '61.

For the Needle, Minasian, with pencil and slide rule, made the calculations on paper that helped him figure out how it could be built. While the design purposely suggested a flying saucer, and while many people likened the Needle to a rocket pointed at the heavens, the structural consultant who engineered it had real, not hypothetical, experience with Space Age engineering. Yet even with his contribution to the space program, it was the Needle that gave Minasian the most pride, according to his family. To the end of his days (at age 94 in 2007) Minasian often wore a blue Space Needle baseball cap.

Minasian's Needle work was widely recognized by his contemporaries. In 1962, he won the Oscar of the consulting engineering business with an award for "Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Structural Engineering" for the Space Needle, an endeavor described in the press at the time as "unique and daring."

That it was, and the same could be said of Minasian.

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