Continuing Research at the Rocket Propulsion Facility

The development of the Peacekeeper ballistic missile and the Small ICBM was a major focus of the propulsion facility during the 1970s. The AFRPL, in conjunction with Pratt & Whitney personnel, was involved in the design and advanced development testing of the XLR-129 liquid rocket engine, the high-performance reusable L02/LH2 rocket engine that was the basis for the main engines of NASA's space shuttle (Willliam Lawrence, personal communication 1996). Because of reports from the Vietnam War that the enemy could visually detect the smoke from burning propellant and thus avoid missile attack, propellant research in the 1970s and 1980s focused on developing new propellants, including smokeless and cleaner burning solid propellants (U.S. Air Force 1984a), as well as solar and electric propulsion (U.S. Air Force 1984b, 1985, 1986).

In the mid-1980s, the basic mission of the rocket propulsion laboratory was expanded to include responsibility for developing additional satellite systems and space technology programs. The development of heavy lift vehicles and kinetic energy weapons in support of the Strategic Defense Initiative program was among these new responsibilities. Reflecting this change in mission was a change in name. The AFRPL was renamed the Air Force Astronautics Laboratory. The Titan 34D Solid Rocket Booster was tested on test stands in Test Area 1 -125 that were constructed for the development of the F-1 engine. These boosters were used to launch U.S. spy, early warning, and communications satellites (Antelope Valley Press 1987; General Physics Corporation 1992). Test stands and superstructures in Test Area 1-115 went from standby status during most of the 1970s to being abandoned and having the steel components scrapped during the early 1980s or mid-1980s (William Lawrence, personal communication 1998).

In 1990, the Air Force Astronautics Laboratory was renamed Phillips Laboratory, Propulsion Directorate. This change reflected the consolidation of Air Force laboratories across the nation into four "superlabs". The AFRL's work in the 1990s has included technology development for space launch vehicles, space power and structures, and propellant and combustion research. Important projects include the Titan IV Solid Rocket Booster, which is being tested on revamped Test Stands 1-C, and 1-D in Test Area 1-125; the high energy density materials project, focused on creating new fuels; efforts to develop space-based interceptors for theater missile defense; work on the next generation of launch systems, including the X-33, the X-34, the evolved expendable launch vehicle; and the miniature sensor technology integration program, which involves developing a low-cost small spacecraft to detect and track ballistic missiles (U.S. Air Force 1995).

In 1997, the name of the Phillips Laboratory was changed to the Air Force Research Laboratory. The AFRL combines all four superlabs and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research into a single laboratory commanded from Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio. The rocket group at Edwards AFB covers ballistic launch, spacelift, tactical, and spacecraft propulsion research and development (Edwards Air Force Base 1997). Although in its early years the facility and its staff were dedicated to developing Cold War ballistic missiles and satellite systems and winning the space race, the decade of the 1990s has seen a marked transition to broadening the dual-use application of propulsion technology for commercial launch and satellite systems through participation with virtually all U.S. aerospace corporations (TetraTech 1997:2-31).