Nearly 76 years ago, the brand-new Michelson Laboratory at Naval Ordnance Test Station China Lake opened its doors, ushering in a legacy of naval innovation and capability advancement in the high desert. That legacy continued through wartime and peace, carried forward by the men and women of the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division.
The lab’s story hit a difficult chapter in July 2019 when two major earthquakes caused extensive damage to parts of the sprawling structure, with some sections rendered inoperable. That could have been the end of the story. What would come next for Michelson Lab?
On Jan. 9, Wings 2-5 of Michelson Lab reopened after a refurbishment and modernization project that took more than 200 work years to realize. Luckily, that only took two and a half years on the calendar.
“On April 1, 2021, we broke ground to restore and modernize Michelson Lab,” said Capt. Ben Wainwright, commanding officer of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Officer in Charge of Construction China Lake. “We took 75 years of old infrastructure and constructed a modern, efficient, functional, and adaptive workspace.”
OICC provides engineering, acquisition, and execution oversight for the military construction and repair projects related to China Lake’s earthquake recovery efforts.
Refurbishment is difficult, Wainwright noted, more difficult than just starting fresh. Rear Adm. Keith Hash, NAWCWD commander, noted that although it made the task more challenging, it was the right solution to preserve the lab’s legacy.
“For most of the construction, we tore down what was here before and built something new. Michelson Lab is different. We decided to maintain the history of Michelson Lab and what it meant to us as a community, and the inspiration it brought and refurbish it.”
Cutting the ribbon on the reborn facility marked a milestone in the road to recovery, Wainwright said. “We’re one step closer to finishing the work of this monumental” earthquake recovery program.
Measuring that journey from dedication to damage, renewal to reinvigoration, is important, Hash said. Ribbon cuttings, birthdays, anniversaries, and milestones are how we measure our lives, our success, and ourselves. He went on to note that it is particularly fitting to discuss measuring progress in the context of Michelson Lab.
“Dr. Albert Abraham Michelson, after whom this laboratory is named, was obsessed with measurement. Specifically, measuring the speed of light,” Hash explained.
The Naval Academy graduate had a long history of scientific excellence, but his passionate pursuit of accurately measuring the speed of light led to a number of advances in optics. Those efforts would eventually lead Michelson to a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1907. He was the first American to receive the honor.
Michelson never stopped improving his craft, designing and re-designing and refining his instruments, developing more and more accurate tools for measuring not only the speed of light but distances. Right up until his death in 1931, Michelson continued his experiments, always reaching for that slightly more accurate answer.
This passion for continuing to improve, to never stop questioning, makes Michelson the perfect namesake for the lab and the work still being done there decades later, Hash said.
“Like Michelson, we’re never quite satisfied with the as-is. We’re striving for the could-be. And we measure that success, like Michelson, over and over again, defining, refining, and improving every day.”