Roots of Rocket Propulsion Research and Development at Edwards AFB

Rocket propulsion research at Edwards AFB began in 1941, when scientists from the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT) began testing its jet-assisted takeoff rockets at the Muroc Lake Bombing and Gunnery Range. For this project, which came under the control of the Army Air Corps in 1940 and was renamed Jet Propulsion Laboratory Edwards Test Station in 1944, ground-breaking work was conducted on the development and testing of solid propellant rockets to assist with aircraft takeoffs (Compute Sciences Corporation 1995). During World War II, flight testing was conducted for America's first jet bomber (XB-43), rocket-powered aircraft (MX-324), and jet fighter (XP-59) at Muroc Flight Test Base, located north of the bombing and gunnery range (Neufeld 1990; Computer Sciences Corporation 1995). In direct support of Muroc Army Air Field and its later incarnation as the Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC), rocket-propelled sleds were used for deceleration testing at the North Base Test Track in the 1940s and 1950s and to test vehicle components, seat ejection systems, and other systems at the South Base High Speed Test Track from 1948 through 1962.

Roots of Rocket Propulsion Research and Development on Leuhman Ridge

In 1946, Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft Corporation (Convair) initiated the Atlas program although no testing facilities capable of accommodating the development of the missile's propulsion systems existed at the time (Goethert and Lennert 1962). This program was the primary impetus for selecting a site for a static test facility in an area less densely populated than Wright Field. Situated near Dayton, Ohio, Wright Field was the location of the primary rocket research facility (the Power Plant Laboratory) for the military at the time. A committee from the Power Plant Laboratory at Wright Field visited Muroc Army Airfield and chose Leuhman Ridge as the site for such a testing facility.

The site had many advantages, including being located close to Muroc Army Airfield's large runway, which could handle freight of any size, and to Muroc Flight Test Base with its jet aircraft testing facilities and its power plant branch with rocket and rocket propulsion sections. Also nearby were Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory field location test stands, located on the Muroc facility, and major defense manufacturers in the Los Angeles area (Markusen et al. 1991; Lotchin 1992; U.S. Air Force 1950a, 1950b, 1950c). An additional advantage of the location was its remoteness. The remote location was necessary not only for security and safety precautions, but also because of the potential for noise nuisance, potential for violent explosions, and the toxic nature of the propellant. The desert environment was advantageous in terms of maintenance, resulting in no rust and little deterioration of expensive test stands and facilities (Robert Corley, personal communication 1998). Finally, the location of Leuhman Ridge on federally owned land precluded the need for lengthy land acquisition processes (Schmidt and Dynes 1951).

Because of the tremendous cost to private industry, power plant personnel concluded that a government-operated, centralized test facility was the best approach for meeting these new testing needs. In addition, the military believed that a testing station built at a contractor's plant would give that firm almost exclusive rights to future contracts for high-thrust propulsion systems or would require additional expenditures for similar facilities elsewhere (U.S. Air Force 1954a; Schmidt and Dynes 1951).