Thousands of staff members and guests gathered in North Laurel at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL)’s Kossiakoff Center on March 10 to mark the 75th anniversary of APL’s founding.
The day began with a breakfast reception and a technology expo showcasing nearly 20 of APL’s latest innovations, and ended with a behind-the-scenes tour for guests.
The formal celebration program opened with anniversary greetings from senior Navy officials from around the world and from celebrities, including Bill Nye the Science Guy. A short movie, which has been made available for viewing on the APL website, provided historical background on the Lab’s work.
“For 75 years, in war and peace, APL’s engineers and scientists have answered the nation’s call as they have tackled a complex array of scientific and technical challenges,” said Johns Hopkins University President Ron Daniels, addressing the capacity crowd. “APL has proven its ability not only to provide solutions to the problems of the day, but to help our nation’s leaders anticipate the challenges on the horizon.”
Other speakers included Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, former Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, County Council Chair Jon Weinstein and APL Director Ralph Semmel.
Three former APL directors, Gary Smith, Gene Hinman and Rich Roca, attended the event, while another former director, Carl Bostrom, watched from home.
Semmel stressed the importance of partnerships for APL’s longevity and, indeed, for its very existence.
“With government, the Navy and other services, NASA, the Department of Homeland Security, the intelligence community,” he said, “these folks draw on our capabilities every day, and we live to provide capabilities to our sponsors.”
While those capabilities usually address very specific needs, Van Hollen noted that they also frequently register additional benefits. “What we do here inspires people around the world,” he said, citing the vast interest shown by the general public in APL’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. “I am confident that you have some young scientist out there whose imagination was sparked by seeing that Pluto fly-by.”
Having landed a spot on the Senate’s Appropriations Committee, Van Hollen said he looks forward to continuing Mikulski’s 30-year tradition as an advocate for national investments that will help enhance APL’s role in discovery and in the nation’s defense.
“We all ask those very basic questions, how did all of us get here, are we alone?” Van Hollen said. “[APL is] part of that exciting human enterprise, and along the way your work has spun off really important innovations for our Maryland economy and the national economy.”
APL’s history belies its discrete opening in the garage of a Silver Spring automobile dealership in 1942.
At that time, it had but one mission: create a proximity fuze for anti-aircraft use that could defend military forces from aircraft attack during World War II. Today, APL’s capabilities are distributed across 12 different mission areas, including civil space, cyberoperations and national security analysis.
Following the war, the laboratory’s focus shifted to designing and defending against supersonic missiles.
“What’s amazing are the results that still underpin much of the work we do today in missiles,” Semmel said.
Continually adapting to address new threats and exploit new areas of research, APL “has been focused very heavily on [the] notion of game-changing impact,” he said, with some surprising outcomes.
By working out how to track the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite using the Doppler effect associated with its transmitted signal, APL physicists William Guier and George Weiffenbach were eventually able to use the satellite’s orbit to determine the location of a receiver on the ground.
“As a result, satellite navigation was born, the Transit system was the first global satellite navigation system, and it was the precursor to GPS,” Semmel said.
Over the years, APL solved difficult problems that have included guiding friendly missiles in an intense electronic jamming environment, detecting increasingly quiet submarines at great distances, minimizing the number of launches to acquire missile testing data and tracking targets beyond the horizon.
In the space arena, “No one thought you could develop low-cost spacecraft that could conduct good science exploration,” Semmel said.
APL’s Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous [NEAR] mission, however, put an end to that thought. “By the end of that [mission], APL returned a check for $3.6 million to the government and, in addition, landed the spacecraft on the asteroid Eros, which was not planned when the mission was first started,” Semmel said.
MESSENGER followed, redefining scientists’ understanding of Mercury, and then New Horizons provided the closest, most detailed look ever taken of Pluto.
To date, APL has been involved in 26 planetary and solar missions, building its own spacecraft and providing instruments flown aboard other agencies’ missions and expanding humanity’s knowledge of comets and asteroids, magnetospheres, energetic particles and other areas of scientific study.
One spacecraft — Voyager 1, launched in 1977 — has even reached interstellar space and continues to collect and return useful data.
As much as APL does for the nation, it also does much for Howard County, Kittleman said.
“There are 6,000 employees, and 40% live in Howard County,” he said, many highly-educated individuals who help with charitable organizations and mentor students. “Our county is a much stronger county because of you and what you provide to us.”
APL’s work on prosthetic devices is also giving hope to wounded warriors and others with missing limbs who yearn to be more independent and productive.
“You make a difference in the lives of people and in the lives of a nation,” Mikulski said. “That’s why we always need to stand up for the opportunity in this country, so that this country can continue to be the greatest opportunity in the world.”
For 75 years, Semmel said, APL has been involved in “an incredible journey and an incredible number of defining innovations that have transformed our world,” and new frontiers continue to open — chief among them are the exploitation and defense of cyberspace, autonomous and robotic systems, and the field of medicine involved with restoring capacity.
“As excited as I am to be celebrating our 75th anniversary,” he said, “I’m even more excited to think about the things that we’re going to be achieving here in the future.”