Lab changes with times but keeps its focus

APL: Begun during World War II to help design defenses against kamikaze attacks, the research facility continues to work on homeland security issues.

March 21, 2004|By Jeff Seidel | Jeff Seidel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory has grown and changed since opening in 1942, but much of what it does remains the same.

APL first began when the United States was in the midst of World War II, helping defend against the kamikaze air threat in the South Pacific. More than 60 years later, APL continues to work on security projects and in other areas.

Based in Laurel, APL has 3,300 employees and annual funding of about $540 million. It performs about 79 percent of its work for the Department of Defense, with the additional 21 percent for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

"About two-thirds of our military work is with the Navy," APL director Rich Roca said. "The Navy has to defend its own assets and bases, plus broader areas."

APL, a not-for-profit division of the Johns Hopkins University, started in Silver Spring before moving to Howard County in the mid-1950s. Many of the programs it has worked on over the years, including detection systems for chemical or biological weapons, would now be classified as homeland security.

Roca said that starting in the 1950s, APL worked with Polaris submarines, capable of launching intercontinental ballistic missiles. Those have long been retired and replaced with Trident submarines, which also carry such missiles.

Duties include ensuring that the missile systems on the submarines work. Roca said this rests on the submarines being undetected -- and making sure they stay that way. This led to APL learning more about undersea warfare.

APL also works with NASA to support space missions. That includes building instruments and satellites for planetary missions, among them a mission to Mercury.

"The skills you had to develop to enable you to use a satellite to use on the Earth's surface are the same skills needed to move a spaceship around the Earth and through the planetary system," Roca said.

Meanwhile, APL continues to grow in size. A new 200,000-square-foot building -- the 12th major building on the more than 100-building APL campus -- should be complete soon, with occupancy set for July, said Harry Charles, the head of technical services. The new building is part of a $190 million campus improvement program that will eventually bring four new buildings to APL by 2006 or 2007.

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