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Weird Science: Hopkins physics lab celebrates 70 years

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Some of the world's greatest innovations were conceived in the humblest of places, and that was certainly true of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

When it opened its doors in 1942, in a former used-car dealership in Silver Spring, APL had a staff of 365.

Seventy years later, after moving in 1954 to its current 399-acre campus in North Laurel, the lab, with 4,700 employees, is Howard County's second largest employer, behind only the public school system. It has developed an eye-popping series of scientific breakthroughs, ranging from prosthetic arms to spacecraft, and become a valued part of the county.

"APL is a very complex and diverse organization," said Ed Cochran, a former Howard County executive and research chemist who retired from the lab in 1996, "and it has a great relationship with the county."

Johns Hopkins University's not-for-profit research division didn't make a splashy debut, but what was going on in the inside was a different story.

Just three months before the lab opened 70 years ago, Pearl Harbor had been bombed by Japan. In the throes of patriotic fervor, the scientific minds at work in the unconventional building got quickly caught up in developing a device that would eventually be considered one of the most important technological advances of World War II.

The Variable Time Fuze was designed to detonate an explosive device near an enemy aircraft, eliminating the need for a direct hit. These proximity fuses were fitted to such weapons as artillery and mortar shells, and were pre-set to burst at selected heights.

The VT Fuze would go on to "increase overall effectiveness by a factor of 50," said Jerry Krill, assistant director of science and technology. Despite the fuss made over the device in its heyday, it has "long since gone to its grave."

Today, APL's employees work in 50 office and lab buildings, including the new space research building that opened in November. A satellite construction facility is expected to open late this year, and will be the last addition to the campus infrastructure for the foreseeable future.

Ralph Semmel, a Columbia resident and 25-year employee who became APL's eighth director in July 2010, points out that the most important aspect of the organization's mission hasn't changed at all since its inception.

"The VT fuze was an absolutely astounding engineering accomplishment," said Semmel. "Imagine firing a light bulb out of a cannon with the know-how to allow it to not break prematurely. That was truly mind-boggling.

"But what drove us 70 years ago — making critical contributions to critical challenges — still drives us today," he said of the lab's work, in which basic physical concepts are applied to practical devices and systems or used in research. "The government turns to us when it's facing incredible problems that need solutions."

'Wide array of firsts'

APL's projects can be broken down into four basic areas of concentration: air and missile defense, force protection, asymmetric operations, and space. The lab's main government sponsors are the federal departments of defense and homeland security, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the National Security Agency.

"It's a cat-and-mouse game in some ways; we know things and we anticipate things," Semmel said in describing the lab's interaction with its government sponsors. "What can be done and what others can do overlaps."

As the decades ticked past, APL's noteworthy contributions kept piling up: the first supersonic guided missile using satellite navigation, which was a precursor to today's GPS devices; the first use of integrated circuits in space; the first rechargeable cardiac pacemaker to use space technology; and the first spacecraft landing on an asteroid.

Other accomplishments that merit mention among the lab's "wide array of firsts," according to Semmel, include the first photo of the Earth from space (1948), a microprocessor-driven prosthetic arm (1976), a disease surveillance system to track epidemics (2002), foliage-penetrating light detection and ranging system (2010), and a thought-driven prosthetic arm (2011).

Messenger, the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury, was launched in 2004, but is making news again. Though it was launched over seven years ago from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, it just began its second year of NASA mission operations in mid-March.

Excitement runs high over the prospects for another spacecraft that is still speeding toward its destination. Named New Horizons, it was launched in 2006 and is expected to reach Pluto in 2015 when it should provide detailed data from what APL still considers our solar system's ninth planet, said John Sommerer, head of the space sector.

"We get one chance to get every little bit of data that can be collected in one flyby," he said of APL's detailed planning for the encounter 3 billion miles away.

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.

"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


Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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