Another "big thing" will be the launching in 2018 of Solar Probe Plus, a billion-dollar mission that will "fly closer to the sun than ever before," he said, adding with a smile that "it doesn't help to go at night."

"We will actually fly inside the sun's corona, where the temperature is millions of degrees, while keeping the instruments at room temperature," Sommerer said. "We have wanted to do this [mission,] literally, for 50 years.

"Space is a tough place," he said. "Sometimes we lose a spacecraft."

But there is one not-uncommon trait of space missions that isn't allowed to occur at APL, he said.


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"Many long-duration missions can go over budget," he said, "but APL is proud that we don't. Many engineers have the temptation to 'polish the cannonball,' but we stop when we meet the level-one science requirement. You're only as good as the last thing you've done," Sommerer said.

Prosthetic limbs

Other projects currently under way at APL help drive home the idea that the technological future is now.

The Modular Prosthetic Limb, a neurally controlled artificial limb that will restore motor and sensory capability to upper-extremity amputees, is featured on the cover of the May issue of "Popular Mechanics," for example.

The MPL has 27 capabilities that are integrated with the brain, nearly the same number of degrees of freedom as the human arm, Krill said, but it's lighter and stronger.

"Someday, there will be exoskeletons to take the place of wheelchairs and walk for you," he predicted. "As a part of Johns Hopkins University, we leverage their knowledge. Our systems engineering can take medicine into the next millennium."

As for what else lies ahead, APL will continue its defense work with Ft. Meade, Ft. Belvoir, Va., and Aberdeen Proving Ground, Semmel said, while noting the potential exists for the government to decide to hold another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC).

Despite defense cutbacks and an unstable economy, Semmel expressed confidence in what the future holds for the lab, saying it is highly regarded as "a trusted partner" and has already built 64 spacecraft and nearly 200 space instruments for NASA and defense sponsors. APL is also only one of four end-to-end space research facilities nationwide that can design and build a spacecraft, and then go on to manage the space mission, he said.

Just since 2000, APL has released approximately 1,700 new technologies, resulting in the creation of 289 companies nationwide, a spokesperson said. In Maryland alone, 20 new companies have been formed as a result of APL innovations.

'Getting it done'

Kate Paige, a retired rear admiral in theU.S. Navyand a former APL sponsor, said that what sets APL apart in sponsors' eyes is that employees are "absolutely committed to solving the nation's critical problems in defense and in space.

"They have become superb analysts and are experts at building and using models and simulations. They are out there wherever the work is, getting it done," Paige said.

"They give it everything they have; their hearts and souls as well as their technical expertise," she said. "They've done a nice job retaining what brought them to where they are, and honoring their past while also looking forward."

Cochran, who served as Howard County executive from 1974 to 1978, recalls his former employer as a "good corporate citizen in that no one objected to employees spending time on civic things." APL employees, he said, "have a great technical record, yet they are a very accessible population."

Semmel said APL employees, three-fifths of whom are county residents, strongly believe in giving back to the community through voluntarism. They also place great educational emphasis on working on initiatives in science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as STEM.

"The United States faces tremendous technological threats from other countries and our lead [in those areas] is evaporating," Semmel explained. "We have a vested interest in STEM because that's where we'll get our employees of the future. But our interest is much broader than just engineers filling a pipeline."

Krill summed up the thread interweaving APL's record of accomplishments over seven decades this way: "When it comes to needs, we reserve the hardest ones (to complete), the ones that we can uniquely handle. From missile defense to health care technology, we tend to be the glue."

Watch a 'rap' video on the lab's 70th anniversary