Ceremony will make lab’s closing official
A research facility at Hanscom Air Force Base that has roots in Cold War-era politics and then was transformed into a 21st-century space technology center will close next month.
The Air Force Research Laboratory in Bedford is scheduled to be inactivated in a ceremony June 15. The closure is part of the Pentagon’s 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission’s set of recommendations that need to be completed by Sept. 15.
The facility’s Sensors Directorate will be moved to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, and the Space Vehicles Directorate and Geophysics Lab will head to Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. A small sensor research lab in Sudbury and a radar research outpost in Ipswich will also be closed as part of the cross-country move of the lab’s opera tions, according to Hanscom officials.
The move will affect approximately 300 civilian jobs, according to Hanscom spokeswoman Patty Walsh.
Some employees, especially scientists with special expertise, including a group of Boston College researchers, will move to the new locations or work remotely, said Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Stutz, commander of the Air Force Research Lab at Hanscom.
Walsh said 192 employees will move to New Mexico or Ohio.
Most of the lab’s employees — both civilian and military — live off the base.
During the past six years since the closure was announced, they have been making plans to move or find other jobs.
Some employees retired, some found other positions at Hanscom, while others sought employment as scientists elsewhere, Walsh said.
“It hasn’t been a sudden move at all,’’ she said.
Stutz said the move is “a sad, but necessary step that the DOD had to make.
“We are trying to make the best of it,’’ he said. “We are doing our best job to keep the science intact as we move out West. But I do think we are really well set up for the future.’’
The move is not going to leave any vacant buildings at Hanscom. The Air Force’s Electronic Systems Center is expanding and will take the space, Walsh said.
The Hanscom facility began as the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory, which was established near MIT and Harvard at the end of World War II to develop military applications of natural phenomena.
The lab — then deeply involved in work on antiaircraft radar systems — moved to Hanscom in the 1950s. One of its most important projects was the development of the first hurricane forecasting technology in 1957, said Stutz.
“It has always been a rich environment for intelligent and gifted scientists,’’ Stutz said.
Eventually, lab research was focused exclusively on extraterrestrial weather, particularly ionospheric technology. In the 1980s, its researchers developed technology that would be used to create the military’s first Global Positioning System, or GPS, framework.
They conducted pioneering research into ionospheric physics, and the impact of time delays on satellite signals that helped lead to the technology in popular usage today, Stutz said.
In recent years, the lab has begun conducting cutting-edge work studying solar flares.
Scientists will continue that work in New Mexico, with the hope of someday developing a system to predict solar flares, which can interfere with communication satellites, said Bob Morris, division chief of the Battlespace Environment Division of the Space Vehicles Directorate.
The Pentagon’s closure and realignment decisions affected other military facilities in the state as well. The Army closed Fort Devens in 1996, and the Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod was recently targeted for closure. The base was kept open, but the military moved a squadron of its F-15 aircraft to Westfield, in Western Massachusetts.
Several Massachusetts members of Congress, including Senator John Kerry and his late colleague, Edward M. Kennedy, objected to the closure of the lab when the recommendations were first made public, saying it would be difficult to replicate the level of skilled employees elsewhere in the country.
An attempted transfer of the Hanscom lab was successfully blocked by the New England delegation to Capitol Hill in 2003.
But objections to the 2005 decision on base closures raised by Kennedy, Kerry, then-governor Mitt Romney, and US Representatives John Tierney, Edward J. Markey, and Martin T. Meehan were unsuccessful.
Tierney said in a statement last week that he wanted the lab to stay part of the New England economy, but was overruled by the Defense Department.
“Along with several of my Massachusetts colleagues, I opposed the decision to relocate the Air Force Research Laboratory from Hanscom Air Force Base and fought to reverse it,’’ he said. “For more than 60 years, the scientists, engineers and other skilled AFRL professionals at Hanscom produced many achievements that have helped support and transform Air Force operations.
“I thank them for their service and contribution to our country’s national defense and wish those who are relocating to New Mexico continued success.’’
Erica Noonan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.