Construction History - Air Force Research Laboratory, Edwards Air Force Base

Early Construction

After the decision to build the facility had been made, contractors experienced with rocket engine development were solicited for the proposed test station design plan. These contractors included Curtiss-Wright Corporation; North American Aviation; N. W. Kellogg Company; Reaction Motors; and Aerojet Engineering Corporation (AEC), a subsidiary of Aerojet General Corporation, which had been formed earlier by GALCIT scientists. Because the type of large-scale static test stand required for the test facility had no precedent, the use of an engineering subsidiary of a rocket manufacturer promised the best possible results for construction of the test facilities (TetraTech 1997).

In 1947, the Air Materiel Command, through its Rocket Branch, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) contracted with AEC for the design of the rocket engine test stands and auxiliary facilities at Muroc Army Airfield (Renamed Edwards AFB in 1949) (U.S. Army Air Force 1948; U.S. Air Force 1964a). AEC was the logical choice to advise the Corps. Since Aerojet's inception as a spinoff of GALCIT, it had concentrated on rocket research and development, whereas competing contractors at the time were multidisciplinary organizations and aircraft manufacturers.

In 1952, ERETS was activated. Its primary mission was "to accomplish research, development, and static testing of experimental and production rocket power plants, and to provide authorized contractors and other Governmental agencies with facilities and engineering assistance in research, development, and testing of experimental rocket power plants" (U.S. Air Force 1953:474). Rocket Branch personnel performed liquid rocket propellant servicing operations for aircraft and provided engineering and consulting services to AFFTC activities using rocket engines and their components (U.S. Air Force 1953:474).

In the late 1940s, the largest rocket engine, or power plant, in existence had a thrust of 75,000 pounds. Construction of two test stands rated at 400,000 pounds of thrust was thought to provide a more than adequate margin to accommodate improvements in technology (U.S. Air Force 1964b). The test stands and control station, located in Test Area 1-115, were activated early in 1953. In 1952, while the first stage of construction was being completed at the facility, work was initiated in Test Area 1-110 on additional test stands to be operational by 1956 (U.S. Air Force 1964b).

Initial Building Campaign (1948-1953)

The Corps was responsible for constructing the infrastructure and the nontechnical facilities, and Aerojet wasconstructing the technical facilities at the new rocket test location.

Construction of the infrastructure began in summer 1947. The Corps initiated its nontechnical facilities construction in November 1949 although the infrastructure was not complete. Service buildings of lightweight, reinforced concrete or of structural steel with corrugated roofs and side panels were designed and erected. Buildings followed the design standards outlined in the Corps' Manual for Military Construction except for features unique to the desert environment or for the large rocket engine test facility (WiUiam Lawrence, personal communication 1998). Some of the exceptions included the provisions for seismic loading, wind loading, concrete design, maximum earth-bearing pressure, and vibrations absorbed by the foundation (Schmidt and Dynes 1951).

In February 1950, Aerojet initiated construction of the technical facilities on Leuhman Ridge. The site's initial construction was scheduled to be completed in 1952 by Aerojet. The initial facilities designed for the site were (U.S. Air Force 1954b, 1964a):

  • two test stands (Test Stands 1-3 [Bldg. 8698] and 1-5 [Bldg. 8641]), each thrust-rated at 400,000 pounds;
  • control station structure (1-7 [Bldg. 8668]);
  • 14,200-gallon nitric acid storage;
  • nitrogen cascade system;
  • intermediate fuel storage;
  • general machine shop;
  • assembly area;
  • test stand machine shop;
  • fire station;
  • cafeteria to seat 80 persons;
  • bachelor officers' quarters (for 34 men);
  • administration building;
  • vehicle maintenance shop;
  • storage warehouses;
  • area maintenance shop; and
  • propellant facilities.

Between 1949 and the end of 1952, $5 million had been spent on building the original facilities on Leuhman Ridge (U.S. Air Force 1964a). In 1952, Aerojet completed its initial phase of construction, and the facility was ready to assume its mission to provide testing facilities for all the Air Force's important missile and rocket projects. During tiiis initial building phase, the infrastructure at the rocket lab and much of the facilities known as CE (Civil Engineering), Test Area 2-10, Test Area 2-20, and Test Area 1-115 were constructed (CA-236-6). Of the facilities listed above, the test stands, control station structure, and related testing facilities were constructed in Test Area 1-115; the vehicle maintenance, storage, and area maintenance shops were built in Test Area 2-20; and CE, the administration building, the cafeteria, and the bachelor officers' quarters were built in Test Area 2-10. The use of "1-" before the number of an area indicates a high-hazard area, whereas the "2-" indica1998).

Second Building Campaign (1953-1957)

The remaining initial construction included in the master plan was to be finished by 1956 (U.S. Air Force 1954b). The acceleration of the ICBM program made completing the facility an even greater priority. New test areas constructed included Test Areas 1-14,1-21,1-110, and 1-120. These areas included Test Stands 1-1 and 1-2 and a control center (1-6) in Test Area 1-110. Other facilities constructed during this period included Test Stand 1 -4 and new superstructures on Test Stands 1 -3 and 1 -5 in Test Area 1 -115, a hydrodynamics test building, a 40,000-square-foot missile assembly building, an acid storage facility, a liquid nitrogen facility, a flame deflector water coolant pump facility at Test Stand 1-3, and a 4,000-pounds-per-square-inch (psi) gaseous helium storage and distribution system (U.S. Air Force 1955b, 1957a).

Third Building Campaign (1957-1960)

The substantial increase in the need for testing facilities led to construction of test facilities and continued testing of rocket engines and components associated with the development of ICBMs, IRBMs, and the launch vehicle for Saturn V (Bilstein 1980; Divine 1993; Swenson et al. 1966). The expansion that took place in the late 1950s consisted not only of additions to already existing test facilities (Test Areas 1-30 and 1-14) and support areas (Test Area 2-10), but the addition of a motor components test area (Test Area 1-32) and a silo area (Test Area 1-100). In preparation of the influx of personnel, the bachelor officers' quarters were converted to offices for the Air Force and civilian engineers conducting and managing the testing and research programs. On arriving with the transfer group from Wright-Patterson AFB, Mr. Geisler found a Bible on his table and a "No Smoking in Bed" sign in his office, evidence of the building's original purpose (Robert Geisler, personal communication 1998).

Fourth Building Campaign (1961-1967)

Construction at the AFRPL in the early 1960s and mid-1960s supported the effort to land on the moon, as well as the ongoing satellite and probe projects. Facilities were created or modified to accommodate large rocket motors and engines and their components and to test engine components and designs in simulated space environments. Modifications and additions were made to Test Areas 1-14, 1-30, 1-32, 1-46, 1-60, 1-110, 1-115, 1-120, and 1-125. By 1967, the AFRPL appeared essentially as we see it today. When necessary, structures and buildings have been constructed since then, as is characteristic of a research facility, but there have been no additional periods of intensive construction.

In 1961, NASA requested the construction of three high-thrust static test stands to broaden its testing capabilities to expand the Apollo program testing conducted on the stands in Test Area 1-120. Three stands and associated facilities were constructed in the new Test Area 1-125. These stands were transferred back to Air Force control in the 1970s.