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It would surprise many people to know that Ottawa, when I was growing up in the 1950s, was very much a military town. The fathers of the kids I played with were squadron leaders, colonels, and in one case a general. Yet I also had friends whose fathers were physicists, engineers and chemists, including a man who knew everything there was to know about opium fats. These men weren’t connected to universities, but to a government research establishment, the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), quite near my childhood home, and of course their work often had military implications. The NRC nuclear facility in Chalk River, not far from Ottawa, was an important target of Soviet espionage as the Gouzenko Affair revealed in 1954. And to many historians, the Gouzenko Affair was the beginning of the Cold War.

The Cold War begins…in Ottawa

All this meant that I grow up with an interest in science, and an appreciation of its connection to history and power. I knew, early on, that the interface between science and the military was one of the defining features of the twentieth century.

This is the background of my second novel, China Lake.

My first idea was to write about the development of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, but this had been done many times before, so instead I began to think about the missiles—the delivery systems—that were equally important in nuclear war. In some ways, they were more interesting, because they were woven into the space programs of the US and Russia, the “space race” that was so much a part of the 1960s and 70s. But of course those great rockets also looked back to the Second World War. The Redstone rocket that carried Alan Shepard into space, the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile that was used for John Glenn’s first orbital mission, and the Saturn V that carried Neil Armstrong to the moon, were all based on the the German V-2 rocket that had been developed by Wernher von Braun and his team at Peenemunde.

This could be a good thing.

This history was disturbing. Von Braun was a Nazi and an officer in the SS.

von Braun, winner of NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal, and his Nazi pals

His rockets had been built in a concentration camp, “Dora,” that some considered even more barbarous than Auschwitz. Despite this terrible past, the crucial members of von Braun’s teams were moved to the United States in 1945, and continued their work at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico. Von Braun’s colleagues included his brother, Magnus, who was also a Nazi—he became executive director of Chrysler Corporation in Europe—and Kurt Debus, an enthusiastic Nazi and a member of both the SA and the SS, who became the first director of the Kennedy Space Center. Of course, von Braun himself had no difficulty becoming an American citizen, and was a great pal of Walt Disney. He was awarded the Knights Cross by the Nazis in 1944 and the National Medal of Science by President Ford in 1975.

All this was fascinating enough. But as I investigated further, I kept coming across a rather picturesque reference, The Naval Weapons Center, China Lake. The name itself was enough to arouse my curiosity. I’d never heard of it. What was it? Where was it? What went on there? Answering these questions was strangely difficult. My inquiries at the U.S. Embassy were politely, but firmly, turned away. When I located it on a map, I realized it occupied a huge chunk of California. (It’s about the size of Rhode Island.) And the Mojave desert isn’t where you expect to find a Naval Weapons Center. China Lake was a mystery. I finally flew to Los Angeles in an attempt to solve it. I’ve always been susceptible to the genius loci, the spirit of place. As soon as I saw China Lake, and the strange landscape in which it lay, I knew I wanted to write about it.

When I tried to talk my way onto the base, I was rebuffed, but I persisted, and a few weeks later I was admitted.

my pass for China Lake

Since I’d already done a lot of research, I was able to ask intelligent questions, and people like to talk about themselves, so I found out a good deal. I was even able to meet the widows of several men who’d worked on the base in its earliest days. These men came from the California Institute of Technology, and the Center is very much the child of CalTech. The Institute supplied many of the physicists, chemists and engineers, who were instrumental in developing numerous important weapons, including the detonator of the Hiroshima bomb. But perhaps their most important creation was Sidewinder, the air-to-air missile that is at the center of my novel’s plot. And I found that many of the details of my earlier research connected up. The China Lake station was founded in 1943, and orginally the base’s research was directed against the Germans and the Japanese; but in the years after the War, many of the scientists who’d worked with von Braun ended up there. So the novel retraces this history, back to ‘Dora,’ the concentration camp where the V-weapons were produced, and which I also visited. It made quite a contrast to China Lake. In those days the site of ‘Dora’ was in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), near the town of Nordhausen. Here, inside a mountain, using the tunnels of an old anhydrite mine, prisoners from Russia, resistance fighters from France, German Communists, and deportees from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Hungary (largely Jewish), slaved to build von Braun’s terrible weapons…that would finally be developed into the rocket that took Neil Armstrong to the moon.

Researching and writing China Lake was a wonderful experience, and I must have got a few things right, for I received a fan letter from a lady who’d spend part of her childhood on the base. Here’s a little of what she wrote me:

My parents and I moved to China Lake from San Diego in March 1951. My mother, who held degrees in Chemistry and Physics from the University of Kansas, was hired in the Technical Library in Michaelson Lab. In 1953 the Navy gave her a year's sabbatical to attend UC Berkeley to receive a Master's degree as a Technical Librarian. In late 1951 my father was hired as a draftsman in a department called Aviation Ordnance (AOD) and was one of several men working in that capacity who designed and refined many of the components of the Sidewinder Missile. I was five years old when we arrived at China Lake, in the middle of a sandstorm. For the next 10 years we lived on the base; I attended a kindergarten in a Quonset hut, as well as Grove Street School, Richmond School, Murray Junior High and one years at Burrough's High School, before moving to Oxnard when my mother transferred to Point Mugu. Mr. Hyde, you can see that every page of your story held memories for me—many were immediate, others were long forgotten, but quickly revived with the mention of the slightest thing. For instance, The Hideaway, the restaurant/lounge right outside the main gate of the base was a place I had forgotten, but immediately could see in my mind's eye. It always held a rather mysterious quality for me because it was not readily accessible to a child; it was not a place for children on Friday or Saturday nights. I could go on for many instances, but I feel that you understand how deeply your story affected me. When I read your physical descriptions of the area, I felt the sand burning my legs when I walked to school, I squinted at the glare off the alkaline lake bed where I'd ride my bike, I sat in the hot car waiting for a parent in the parking lot at Michaelson Lab and wondered what could possibly go on in such a huge building, and I cringed at the sound of a jet breaking the sound barrier. So many feelings flooded back, and my only regret was that my mother was not alive to read this book too. She would have enjoyed it very much…


Dora was the code name the SS used to designate the concentration camp known officially as Konzentrationslager Mittelbau. The camp was located just outside Nordhausen, in the Harz mountains of Thuringia. The first prisoners arrived there on August 28, 1943; it was liberated by United States forces, April 11-12, 1945. Over the term of its existence, approximately 60,000 prisoners were held in the camp; of these, more that 25,000 died.

The Germans built concentration camps for a variety of purposes. Some were “death camps,” built to exterminate “socially undesirable elements,” a category that included homosexuals, the Romani people, and some criminals, but was overwhelmingly made up of Jews, some 6 million being murdered. Other camps were used for captured Russians, who were incarcerated outside the normal prisoner-of-war camp system because the Soviet Union had not signed the Hague Convention of 1929. (About 60% of Russian POWs died at the hands of the Germans, more than 3 million men.) Many camps used forced labor for various economic purposes, certain camps were used to imprison political enemies of the Nazi regime, especially Communists and trade-unionists, while still others were more administrative in nature, acting as holding centers for prisoners who would then be sent elsewhere. Most camps had elements of all these functions—e.g., the “death camps,” such as Auschwitz, were also labor camps, and some camps used forced labor as a technique of extermination, prisoners literally being worked to death. Within this system, Dora had a unique place. Although it finally had its own crematorium, it wasn’t a death camp; the largest number of its inmates were Russian prisoners of war, but it was not a POW camp; and although German Communists played a leading role among the prisoners in the camp, Dora was not particularly intended to hold political dissidents. Instead, Dora had one over-riding purpose: the production of the German V rockets, along with their ancillary propellants and equipment. The camp only existed because of the rockets: the camp and the rockets were one.

This had not, however, been the original German intention. The V weapons had been developed and tested at Peenemunde, on the Baltic, so it made sense to produce them there as well, and an assembly-line was in place by July 1943. But Peenemunde was a large installation, and the the Germans’ activity there had not gone unnoticed. The Polish underground had observed test firings and sent reports back to London, and British photo-reconnaissance soon established that a large scale rocket was being constructed at the site. Accordingly, on the night of August 17/18, the RAF launched Operation Hydra, with 596 bombers dropping 1800 tons of bombs on Peenemunde’s laboratories, living quarters and launch pads. Though the raid probably set back the rocket program by only six or eight weeks (testing resumed in October), it so alarmed the Germans that on August 26 they decided to move production into a “hardened” site, the tunnels of a disused gypsum mine in Kohnstein Mountain near Nordhausen. This decision had been preceded by another, equally fatefeul: at a meeting with Hitler on August 18, the whole “special weapons” program was placed under the command of Heinrich Himmler and the SS. Dora—technically a private company called Mittelwerk GmbH—would be a concentration camp.

Arriving at the end of August, the first 107 prisoners all came from Buchenwald, about 100 kilometres away, and indeed until November 1944 Dora was effectively an extension of the larger camp—Dora’s dead, for example, were initially trucked to Buchenwald for cremation. The labor of these prisoners, and those that followed them, was of two kinds. The first was to enlarge and extend the system of old mine tunnels inside Kohnstein Mountain, then install the production machinery within them; and the second was the actual production of the missiles themselves. Obviously the missile production could only begin once a minimum of construction work had been completed, but even after the missiles were being produced, prisoners slaved to extend the tunnel network. The work was terrible—here’s a description of the lives of the prisoners by Jean Michel, a captured member of the French resistance, and one of Dora’s survivors:

Working almost without tools, with their bare hands, they carried rocks and machines in the most shocking conditions…Ammonia dust burnt their lungs. They toiled for eighteen hours a day… Cavities were hollowed out in the tunnel for sleep: 1024 prisoners on four levels, which stretched for a hundred yards…The cubicles were permanently occupied, the day team following the night team and then vice versa. Very faint electric bulbs lit this nightmarish scene. There was no drinkable water. You had to make do with any water you could find, lapping up liquid and mud as soon as the SS had their backs turned, for it was forbidden to drink 'undrinkable' water. The cold and damp in the tunnel were intense. Chilled to the bone, we felt as if our emaciated bodies would go moldy. Some prisoners went mad, others had their nerves shattered by the constant din: the noise of the machines, of pick-axes, the bell of the locomotive, the constant explosions, all of it echoing mercilessly within the closed world of the tunnel. No heat, no ventilation, not the smallest pail to wash in…As for the latrines, they were barrels cut in half with planks laid across. They stood at the end of each row of sleeping cubicles. Often when the SS spotted a deportee sitting on the plank, they would laugh and roughly push him into the barrel. What fun! Never had these gentlemen laughed so hard. All the deportees suffered from dysentery. Covered in shit, the poor fellow, despairing, would crawl back to his hollow, to infest his friends, to roll in the dust to clean himself, there was no other way. Germany, the cleanest nation in the world, exemplary for its hygiene, provided nothing for its regiment of slaves. Conditions of animal care in its farms are said to be an example to the world, but to the Germans a deportee was a lesser creature than a cow, a pig, a chicken, a worm feeding on that chicken. [Jean Michel, Dora, 1980]

And here is an image, a woodcut, made by another remarkable man, Dominik Czerny, who also survived:

And here is an image, a woodcut, made by another remarkable man, Dominik Czerny, who also survived:

Two main tunnels, A and B, were opened in the mountain, connected by cross tunnels—a complex system, as indicated by this map:

map of the tunnel system

The galeries were initially crude—

Dora’s origins as a mine can be seen here.

but were ultimately shaped into the work halls of an underground factory.

Whether enlarging the tunnels or assembling the rockets, the prisoners were driven relentlessly, under the overall direction of SS Obergruppenfuhrer Hans Kammler. He was the construction chief of the SS, notorious for having built Auschwitz. Kammler had little doubt about his priorities: “No matter the number of human victims, the work must be executed and finished in the shortest possible time.”

So far as the number of victims was concerned, the work was certainly “executed.” Indeed, during the first phase of Dora’s existence—from August 1943 to March 1944, while the prisoners were living in the tunnels as Michel describes—the arrival of new prisoners from Buchenwald barely kept up with the deaths. On December 10, 1943 Albert Speer, Hitler’s minister of armaments, made an inspection tour of the tunnels, and even this hardened Nazi admitted that the prisoners lived under “barbarous” conditions and noted that “mortality among them was extraordinarily high.” [Inside the Third Reich, Albert Speer, 1970.] For the prisoners, the dead were just one more horror.

The dead were more and more numerous. Every morning they were piled up at the exit to the Blocks. From there, they were transported to hall 36 [a cross gallery between the tunnels] where the undertakers loaded them onto iron wheelbarrows, two by two, dragging their feet on the ground, their heads banging against each other on the wheel… [A History of the Dora Camp, André Sellier, 2003]

The dead.

Beginning in March 1944, living quarters were built outside the tunnels, and mortality in the camp declined for a time. By September, Dora even had its own crematorium (the only camp building standing today) and on November 1 it was officially declared a camp on its own, separate from Buchenwald. (Dora was the last main camp in the German system.) Of course life for the prisoners still revolved around the tunnels, where the rockets were now being produced in quantity. The first 50 had appeared in January 1944; by May this had increased to over 400, and from September 1944 through February 1945 the rate of production was around 600 missiles per month. Total production was 4575 missiles. Some remarkable color photographs of the rockets’ assembly were made by Walter Frentz, “Hitler’s photographer” (and Leni Reifenstal’s cinematographer.) The scenes were probably posed (to meet the technical limitations of the color film of the day) and they were no doubt sanitized but nonetheless show the astonishing conjunction of slave labor and high technology that was the beginning of modern rocketry and space exploration.

Prisoners assembling the rockets.

The V-2, however, wasn’t the miracle weapon Hitler had hoped for, and the war was now catching up with Dora. The consequence were ghastly.

The breaking through of the Red Army [January 12, 1945] forced the Germans to repatriate the prisoners from the eastern camps. Those from Gross Rosen had been evacuated to Dora in February. The living as well as the dead. Our crematorium was saturated, so pyres had to be built on which to stack the corpses. But they had to be undressed first. A Kapo [prisoner-overseer] promised two slices of sausage to those who volunteered for this duty, without telling what it was. Two slices couldn't be refused. I accepted with another young guy. We spent the day yanking off clothes covered in blood and excrement, feeling flesh gone cold. Pure and absolute horror. [Stéphane Hessel, a French survivor, Danse avec le siècle, 1997.

Why had the crematorium been saturated? Because a huge transport had arrived from Auschwitz only days before.

"I will always carry that living image within me of the convoy arriving at dusk. Open railways cars loaded with tangled bodies heaped up on top of one another with a terrible stench of death. Almost all of these poor souls were incapable of moving, their extremities being frozen and gangrenous…I needed all of my eighteen years and experience of the Tunnel to bear that night. Walking corpses transporting the living dead." [René Chapuy, a French survivor, quoted in A History of the Dora Camp, André Sellier, 2003.]

Dora—and the war—now entered its final days.

Overcrowded, rife with disease, mortality climbed steeply again. The Germans began to panic. The Russians were advancing rapidly in the east, but the Americans were moving in even faster from the west. Von Braun, who had evacuated his team from Peenemunde and was now living near the camp, arranged to hide the entire archive of the V-2’s development and production; it could provide a valuable bargaining chip. On April 1, Kammler loaded 500 technicians and scientists onto a special train, taking them into the Bavarian Alps. (Von Braun followed by car—he would surrender to the Americans on May 2.) On April 2, the tunnel factory was closed, workbenches and machines destroyed. The SS was trying to cover its tracks. Already, in the middle of March, they had hung 162 Russians in the tunnels; now, on April 4, leading German Communist figures—who would certainly have testified against them—were executed. Between April 2 and April 5, the whole administrative apparatus of the camp was dismantled and on April 4 the relatively able-bodied among the camp’s prisoners were evacuated, many ending at Bergen-Belsen. When the first American units arrived at Dora, they found the sick and dying living among the dead.

In the days after their arrival—racing against time, for the camp was to become part of the Soviet Zone—the Americans crated 100 V-2s, tons of parts, and the 14 tons of documentation von Braun had hidden, shipping this all back to the United States in 16 Liberty ships. The Soviets, when they reached the camp in early May, received a few scraps and only one German scientist of significance, Helmut Gottrup; they detonated the entrance to the tunnels. In the years afterwards, Dora was almost forgotten. It wasn’t as central to the Holocaust as Auschwitz and Treblinka. The Americans scarcely wanted to boast that the man at the centre of their space programme was a Nazi and an SS officer, and his greatest creation had been built with concentration camp labor. And with the tunnel blocked, very little of the camp remained; lying inside Communist East Germany it wasn’t easy to visit and there was little to see. [When I visited in the 1980s, a friend and I were the only people there.] Now, things are rather different. Several fine histories have appeared, in the wake of Jean Michel’s pioneering Dora. Since the unification of Germany, research at the camp has been intensified and the tunnels have been partly reopened. I haven’t been back, but I’m told it’s well worth a visit. In any case, every time I hear about a space flight, or a rocket ship, or see a satellite image, I always remember that Dora is where it begins.


The history of the Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) at China Lake begins during the Second World War, reaches its zenith during the coldest days of the Cold War—when it was renamed the Naval Weapons Center (NWC)—and continues today under the designation Naval Air Weapons Station (NAWS), China Lake.

China Lake

Located about 150 miles northeast of Los Angeles, China Lake has been the US Navy’s principal facility for research into airborne weapons, their development, testing and evaluation for almost seventy-five years. The base is enormous: more than a million acres, an area larger than Rhode Island. It’s broken into two vast tracts of the Mojave Desert, a landscape of mountains, canyons and badlands dotted with abandoned mines and home to rattlesnakes, Big Horn sheep, and herds of wild horses and burros. Once upon a time, a tribe of ancient Indians lived here, the Coso people, and on the walls of two canyons on the base they left over fifty thousand petroglyphs, drawings of people and animals scratched into the rock, their purpose still a mystery.

some of China Lake’s many petroglyphs

As for the name, “China Lake” probably honors the Chinese workers who mined borax from the dry lake beds of the Panamint Valley that runs between the base’s two ranges.

The history of China Lake—this naval base in the middle of the desert—actually begins outside the military, in Los Angeles, at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). In fact, the base’s founding father wasn’t even born in the U.S. but Denmark, a brilliant engineer named Charles C. Lauritsen.

Charles Lauritsen

Emigrating to the United states in 1916, Lauritsen worked at a variety of jobs until, in 1926, he attended a public lecture by Robert Millikan, a Nobel prize-winner and the head of Caltech. Lauritsen was so impressed by Millikan that he talked his way into Caltech’s graduate program, then joined the physics faculty, and eventually became director of the Kellog Radiation Laboratory where he was instrumental in developing the world’s first million volt X-ray.

When the Second World War broke out, Lauritsen was the obvious man to head up Caltech’s contribution to the war effort, but it wasn’t until 1941, after a trip to London, that he settled on what it would be. Lauritsen learned that the British had developed a way to extrude cordite without the need for solvents, which made it ideal as a propellant for small rockets. By September, he was leading a Caltech program that produced an even better propellant, then a target rocket (for ships’ gunnery practice), and two other rockets used as anti-submarine weapons. These projects honed Caltech’s skills both in the design of rockets and, equally important, in the production of propellants, and in the summer of 1942 these came together in a truly important weapon. The United States’ entry into the war as a major combatant was now being planned—the landings in North Africa, at Casablanca. There was a need for a weapon that could be fired from landing craft as they neared shore, after the Fleet had lifted its barrage. Caltech, beginning work in June, had a demonstration rocket ready by August, and within days had been tasked to produce over three thousand rockets, with their fuzes and launchers. The university virtually became an armaments factory, office staff in their off-hours working on production, scientists and engineers supervising: finished rockets were stored in the school gym. But by the 10th of October production was complete, and on November 8, 1942 Caltech’s rockets were used at the Casablanca landings. And they would be used in all subsequent U.S. landings, especially in the Pacific.

some of CalTech’s early rockets

Caltech was now established as a crucial centre for the research and development of military rockets. It was the next project that took Lauritsen’s work to China Lake. Again using a British model, Caltech developed a 3.5 inch air-launched rocket capable of attacking sea and land targets. So confident was the Navy in Caltech’s abilities that a huge order for the weapon was placed even before the Caltech design had been finally tested. It would be one of the most successful of Caltech’s early projects. Like Caltech’s barrage rocket, it was used in all the campaigns in the Pacific.

this Corsair is firing CalTech’s rockets in the battle for Okinawa

But the testing of air-launched rockets created an obvious need—a proving ground, one capable of handling aircraft. Moreover, there was a safety question. Producing and transporting explosive rocket propellants in highly populated areas created a clear problem. Already, in March 1942 an explosion in a laboratory at Caltech’s Pasadena campus had taken one life, and in June another man died at Eaton Canyon, a few miles away, where the propellant presses had been set up. A solution to the problem wasn’t easy to find. The Marine base at Pendelton was tried, but it was far too small and busy. The Army allowed Caltech to use its range at Goldstone Lake, but there were no permanent resources there, and everything had to be transported 150 miles, which included long stretches of undeveloped desert road. Captain Thomas Pollock, who flew many of the test flights for Lauritsen’s team, described the Goldstone facility this way:

"We had no crash or fire equipment, except maybe one little fire bottle. Also, we had no facilities to refuel airplanes. I recall one incident up there where it was obvious if we were going to get our tests of some 32 rockets fired in one day from an F6F that we would need fuel. In order to do this we flew a B-24 up there and then hand-pumped fuel from the B-24 over into the F6F…"

By the summer of 1943, the need for a proper range was obvious both to Lauritsen and the Navy. As luck would have it, in March of that year an exceptional officer had been appointed as the Aviation Assistant to the Director of the Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance.

Cmdr. Sherman Burroughs, USN

Commander Sherman Burroughs was the son of a congressman, a graduate of Annapolis, and a naval aviator himself. In July of 1943, familiarizing himself with his new appointment, he visited Lauritsen at Caltech and at once saw the need for “a very large station to conduct all the things that I felt were needed in the aviation weapons field.” Lauritsen required no urging. In early August, he was high above the Mojave Desert in a small Beechcraft plane piloted by Commander J. C. Renard—an officer with a good deal more pull that his rank suggested, and a loyal friend of the Caltech scientists. With maps open on their knees, they searched for a suitable spot in the vast, uninhabited landscape below. On one of these flights Renard was surprised to see a first class, hardtop airstrip in the middle of this “nowhere.” Renard set the little plane down:

"…it was a two way airstrip laid out right in the darn desert and nothing around it. And of course this hit our eye. Great day! Who owns this? It seems to me that some old guy saw us out there and wanted to know if we were in trouble or something. We talked to him… 'Anybody live around here?' 'Well, no, what can they live on? The only thing is, now and again somebody will come out and work a mercury mine.' But then we flew over the area to see if this would be a big problem. I remember this. It would be a big problem if people were living in there… What we were looking for was a range you could shoot down…we had to have enough room that we could let these rockets go in safety…"

finding the base…

Ground reconnaissance confirmed that the spot was close to good roads, a railway, electricity; above all, it was virtually uninhabited: the total population was 25. But there was a problem. The Army had claimed the land for the Army Air Force; and the strip Lauritsen and Renard had landed on was an established dispersal air field. How could the Navy get hold if it? The answer was found by Admiral Marc A. Mitscher. As commander of the USS Hornet, he had launched Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo and fought in the battle of Midway. Exhausted after directing air attacks on the Solomon Islands, he was being given a rest, temporarily assigned as Commander Fleet Air, West Coast. His commitment to the post was minimal—”Do your jobs and don’t bother me”—he told his staff, but when Renard explained the problem Lauritsen had run into Mitscher was roused to action. Mitscher was himself an enthusiastic naval aviator—the 33rd to enter the service. And at Midway, he’d seen first hand the terrible problems the Navy was having with its air-launched weaponry: not one of the torpedoes fired from the Hornet’s planes had properly detonated. With his personality, reputation, and military connections he proved an unstoppable force. On October 29, 1943 the Army’s claim to the airstrip was assigned to the Navy and on 8 November 1943, the Secretary of the Navy officially established the station, “its primary function the research, development and testing of weapons.” So China Lake was born.

With remarkable speed, the new station became an administrative and physical reality. Sherman Burroughs assumed command, and tests on the new range were carried out as early as December 3. The first major construction project—a propellant plant—was begun; a new airstrip was planned. And a mascot-insignia was acquired.

China Lake’s mascot

Now an official navy facility, The Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) played a crucial role throughout the War, researching and testing numerous weapons (including ship-borne torpedos) and entered the nuclear age when its propellant plant produced the high explosives used in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By War’s end, NOTS had taken its place as one of the most important military research facilities in the United States. The transition to peacetime saw the withdrawal of Caltech from active involvement, but the Institute’s legacy would be crucial to the bases’s success in the post-War world. The station’s mission remained research, and its “Principles of Operation” clearly understood that this made it “necessary to attract and hold a technical staff of the highest caliber [and] to provide a working environment and encouragement of outside contacts comparable to those found in major academic and industrial research and development centers.” This led to the base having a unique organizational structure; it was a naval base, with a naval commanding officer—but guided by a Research Board, Administrative Board, and a Technical Director who would be largely civilian. Although there were initial problems, this co-ordination of authority led to the remarkable culture of China Lake as it went forward, service and scientific personnel working back and forth, with no hard lines of division between them. There can be no doubt that this unique scientific-military culture produced China Lake’s greatest single achievement, the Sidewinder missile.

Dr. McLean, creator of Sidewinder

Dr. William Burdette McLean, the creator of Sidewinder, was a “natural” for China Lake; he was even a graduate of Lauritsen’s physics program at Caltech. He had a hands-on, practical bent. At Caltech, Lauritsen had noticed that he was as interested in the apparatus used to make measurements as the measurements themselves. “I have never been tempted to believe,” McLean said, “that a product can be produced by means of drawings alone.” He’d spent the war at the National Bureau of Standards working on proximity fuses and rocket arming mechanisms. It was a free-and-easy environment that didn’t worry about bureaucratic niceties. Jacob Rabinow, a co-worker who followed McLean to China Lake, believed—only half-humorously—”that everything you do illegally, you do efficiently. You work with whatever equipment you have on hand, and of course you do everything on your lunch hour, which starts at 8:00 in the morning and finishes at 5:00 in the evening… If an illegal project does succeed, you will be a hero, but if it fails you would like no one to know about it, so you bury it quickly. Illegal projects are very, very efficient from many points of view.”

This background—even the “illegal” part—helped McLean fit in when he joined China Lake in 1945 as head of the Aviation Ordnance Division. The great problem confronting him was how to shoot down Soviet strategic bombers, and, more generally, how to attack new generations of jet aircraft that could literally fly faster than traditional machine gun bullets or the shells from aircraft cannon. China Lake’s solution was, naturally, rockets. But rockets were unguided; they were effectively aimed by the plane carrying them, and even firing huge salvos of rockets couldn’t reliably hit a maneuvering enemy aircraft. As early as 1946, McLean had concluded that the solution was to “put the fire control in the missile instead of the aircraft.” But “guided” missiles were seen as impossibly complex, expensive and large—so that the executive secretary of the Guided Missiles Committee of the Department of Defence concluded, “THESE THINGS WILL NEVER BE OPERATIONALLY USEFUL, Even Should We Make Them Perfect.”

McLean, considering the problem, took his time, and visited most of the projects that dealt with missiles, including von Braun’s V-2 group at White Sands, New Mexico. He concluded that any guidance system had to be simple, as simple as the rockets themselves. Most guidance system’s of the time involved radar, but the results were complex and cumbersome. The guidance system in Falcon, the most successful example of its kind, was so large that the warhead had to be made very small, requiring a direct hit on its target. By late 1947 McLean had the idea for an alternative, a guidance system using infrared radiation.

What is infrared?

The universe is full of radiation, from gamma rays and x-rays to radio waves, all of which have different wavelengths and frequencies. Our eyes detect radiation with wavelengths in the range of 400 to 700 nanometers. Wavelengths a little shorter than this are ulraviolet (about 400 nanometers to 10 nanometers); the wavelengths a little longer are infrared—from 700 nanometers to one millimetre. But just because our eyes aren’t sensitive to infrared radiation doesn’t mean infrared radiation can’t be detected. Photographers long ago discovered that with certain films they could capture the infrared radiation being reflected all around them—and with the proper filter, this can now be accomplished with digital photography. The world, “seen” this way looks quite different; bright blue sky will look dark, while dark green foliage will be oddly light and bright.

infrared in the park

People sometimes confuse infrared radiation with thermal radiation, and though they’re not the same, it’s true that the hotter objects become the more infrared radiation they emit: a jet’s tailpipe—conveniently for McLean—was an excellent emitter. And it was definitely possible to detect that radiation. By 1947 the photoconductivity of lead sulphide was well-established. Photoconductivity means that a material, such as lead sulphide, becomes more electrically conductive when it absorbs radiation, whether that radiation is from the visible light, ultraviolet violet, or infrared. In the case of lead sulphide, its electrical resistance decreased in the presence of infrared radiation and its electrical conductivity increased proportionally. A lead sulphide seeker linked to a rotating gyroscope—that would use changes in the electrical current to keep itself aligned with the radiation’s source—gave McLean a system that would allow a rocket to “home” on its target.

This was theory. Putting it into practice would require people, laboratory space, and money. Here there was a problem. China Lake was authorized to deal with rockets, ordnance, but the Navy defined guided missiles as aircraft, and aircraft fell under the Bureau of Aeronautics (which was working on a radar guided missile, that would ultimately become a weapon called Sparrow.) McLean’s infrared homing rocket wasn’t quite an “illegal” project, but still a kind of outlaw, and in it in its early years was described and funded as “an intelligent fusing device,” which wasn’t quite a lie, but close. Without clear official support, McLean scrounged money from other budgets, and borrowed engineers from other departments. In 1947 and 1948 the project was largely kept going by the volunteer effort of scientists and technicians on the base. But it could be argued that this was almost an advantage. McLean believed the best research and development could be done by a small, closely-knit team that jumped over bureaucratic and technical boundaries. And that’s what he had. Everyone talked to everyone else, exchanging problems and solutions. Those solutions had to be as simple as possible—there wasn’t money for anything else. In tests, the first rockets rolled: a technician designed a simple notched wheel, spinning as a gyroscope in the missile’s airstream, that moved a tab to counter any roll that developed—the rolleron has been used on virtually every missile since.

Sidewinder’s rollerons

A wobbling gyro was damped by liquids moving in a raceway—a solution adapted by a technician from the damping of his wife’s washing machine—and it worked, even if no one could quite understand why. So a mixture of ingenuity, intuition, hard work and brilliance solved one problem after another. In 1951, Sidewinder finally came out of the closet, and was given development funding. But as the first missiles were tested, the same hands-on, practical approach prevailed. Sidewinder’s first test pilot was Wally Schirra—fresh from a combat tour in Korea—who would become one of the original seven astronauts chosen for Project Mercury. He and the other pilots were made integral members of the Sidewinder team, their feedback crucial as the project moved closer to completion. When a pilot was told that he should fire his missile when a gauge measured a certain voltage, he baulked. “You can’t have a fighter pilot in combat looking at a funny little gauge to see if he can fire or not.” And so the scientists came up with a tone in the pilot’s earphone’s, the Sidewinder growl…and if you want to hear it, you can download a file here (it has been the signal to fire until the most recent iterations of the missile.) Sidewinder still wasn’t out of the bureaucratic woods—it was even cancelled for a brief period—but important milestones were now being reached. The first “hit” was recorded in 1953; in early 1954, a Sidewinder shot down a B-17 drone, and throughout the ’50s numerous drones fell out of the sky above China Lake, courtesy of Sidewinder.

McLean, who was made Technical Director of the station in 1954, quickly moved the missile to production: in 1955 the first missiles were produced by Philco, and on 14 July 1956, after careful training and preparation by China Lake engineers, the missile was made operational, arming planes on the aircraft carrier, USS Randolph.

Sidewinder is undoubtedly the most important air-to-air missile ever produced, and has been used in combat more than any other missile, of any kind. Everyone has copied it: the first Soviet copies actually used the same part numbers as the Philco Sidewinders. And of course it has been ceaselessly developed. McLean’s Sidewinder was AIM 9B—”aim” standing for Air Intercept Missile. Each successive development of the missile has had a new letter of the alphabet, and they are now up to X. Of course these later missiles are in many respects radically different—we have moved into the digital age. But their descent from China Lake’s Sidewinder isn’t in doubt. As for China Lake, it too has developed, being involved in many projects, especially cruise missiles like Tomahawk and SLAM-ER. As we move closer to the present its history becomes more and more “classified” and opaque, but it’s generally accepted that the base isn’t what it was. The “Principles of Operation” were scrapped in the 70s—civilians now work strictly under military command, and the culture developed by Sherman Burroughs and Bill McLean is gone. There are no doubt many reasons for this. But it must always be remembered that China Lake grew out of the Second World War, and for men of McLean’s generation it was perhaps always this war they were fighting: a war in which they had a deep personal commitment. That kind of war has long since passed away, and we have moved into a new kind of world, darker, more ambiguous, threatening. China Lake foreshadows this—and a great writer, with a long personal and familial background in science, had a glimpse of it when he visited the base…to see the rare butterflies that live there. Here is what Aldous Huxley wrote to his brother, Julian, May 20, 1952:

"I went the other day to visit the Naval Research station in the desert, about 200 miles from here. A thousand square miles of testing grounds. Sentries and FBI men to check everyone going in and out. Huge areas and many buildings tightly closed to all but those with the magic talisman. But I saw the main building, called the Michelson Laboratory—nine and a half acres of floor space, foundries and machine-shops which permit the manufacture of everything from an electron microscope to a tank. Mysterious testing gadgets of every kind. And a town of twelve thousand inhabitants, mostly Ph.D's, entirely air-conditioned, in the middle of the most howling of wildernesses. The whole directed to the production of bigger and better rockets. It was the most frightening exhibition of organized insanity I have ever seen. One vaguely thought the human race was determined to destroy itself. After visiting the China Lake Research station, one feels quite certain of it…"