Lasers and space design on an airforce base: part one

By in News

Travel Writer

Adam Vigneron is a U of S student whose interest in science and travel has brought him around the world. This is the first of two installments of his story of laser testing on a classified airforce base — the Dryden Flight Research Centre — with the University of Saskatchewan Space Design Team. His journey begins after arriving in California.

After finding my way to the Comfort Suites in Lancaster, Calif., I awaited a pick-up from my University of Saskatchewan Space Design Team leader.

Boots, our team leader, and the team’s NASA contact strode out to meet the rest of the team at the hotel and to escort us across the airforce base lines. Nobody had thought to get me my visitor’s ID for the base, however, and the office was now closed. I couldn’t go anywhere cool until the next morning and was forced to head back to camp early for supper.

The next day, the team and I woke around 4 a.m. and were at the base by 5 a.m. I had a hunch I would be left outside the gates — because I did not have a visitor’s ID — to await the opening of the visitor’s office at 7 a.m. I was right.

I found a cool corner inside the only open door, cuddled up with my backpack as a pillow, and dozed off. I woke up a few more times as various employees arrived for work — I believe one of them thought I was homeless — and they were all entertained when they heard my story. Fortunately, I got a badge without hassle.

As we were waiting to be escorted on-base, I struck up a conversation with a young female soldier in what I learned was a Navy uniform.

Her old job was being in charge of the nuclear reactor that powered the aircraft carrier she was stationed on — how cool is that?

Out stepped a massive dog, an even bigger handler, and a replacement guard with a massive M-4 assault rifle slung over her shoulder.

As we headed to our makeshift lab, we saw a few team members out on the dried lake bed that surrounds Edwards. They were doing laser testing. The rest of us were relaxing: some napped, some worked, but most waited.

We spent the rest of the afternoon puttering in the hangar, working on this and that. (Mostly though, we watched NASA-TV, which is so much cooler than real TV; they have closed-circuit coverage of any testing currently being carried out on-base.)

Boots and our other team leaders, the laser-testing boys, returned from their day on the lake-bed. At this point, I had no idea what the lake-bed was like; it looked wide, brown, and very flat from our cosy, air-conditioned hangar. I’d have to wait until the next morning to find out just how inhospitable the lake-bed could be.

After leaving base to get some groceries, we returned and noticed that the guards were changing out.

The car that pulled up was from the K-9 unit. Out stepped a massive dog, an even bigger handler and a replacement guard with a massive M-4 assault rifle slung over her shoulder.

Imagine pulling up to an inland military base on a public road in the most secure country in the world and watching as the guard steps out of her kiosk in full desert fatigues, combat armament and a gun large enough to take down a small bull elephant. Even an innocent person would immediately start confessing.

By Wednesday morning, I found it progressively easier to wake up at 4 a.m. After a quick bowl of cereal, we headed out to Dryden for the day’s testing. Destination: lake-bed.

Our NASA security badges were ESCORT class, which meant that we could only enter the gate or move between buildings accompanied by a NASA personnel. We essentially needed a group babysitter all the time. If, as happened this morning, someone forgot their pass at the campsite, we had to find a NASA employee to drive back to the campsite, and then re-enter the secure area. We didn’t have access to food and only had occasional access to a bathroom — it was a bit of a hassle.

However, this was the ideal place to hold this competition. Everyone was used to testing dangerous high technology and the risk of anyone “accidentally” wandering onto our testing site or into our beam path was essentially zero. Not only that, but the compound had almost any facility we could need, the staff understood and got excited about our project, and the military kept the media away.

The trip out to the lake-bed was not a short one, so we needed to bring every tool we wanted at our disposal.

We were explicitly prohibited from taking any pictures of the Air Force half of the base — this included taking pictures of anyone, anything or any planes in between us and Edwards. Our little drive down the business end of an Air Force base took us past an entirely awesome tour of fighters — including the brand new F-22 Raptor — in their hangars, bombers on the tarmac, transport planes, military personnel, jet engine test facilities… You name it, we drove right past it. I loved it.

Now, please let me digress to tell you more about this lake. Imagine a 15 mile radius of flat — just, flat. And this was different than Saskatchewan “flat” for a number of reasons. First, the flat circle was surrounded by mountains, which created a really cool bowl. Second, as the heat picked up and the temperature rose to 40 C, the entire horizon vanished in a shimmer. It was insane how quickly you could barely see the base, even no more than five miles away.

Part two of Vigneron’s story will appear in next week’s issue of the Sheaf; expect lasers!