Aerospace giant Boeing is in the process of shutting down one of America’s most storied laboratories. “Building 31,” part of Boeing’s research facility in Huntington Beach, Calif., helped develop some of the Pentagon’s most secretive weapons — that is, until bloated bureaucracy and benefit cuts demoralized and scattered its employees. Under current plans, the 60-year-old lab will close its doors for good in mid-2013.
Over the years, Building 31 trained monkey astronauts; designed rocket, satellite, laser and airplane parts; and had a hand in the invention of GPS. More recently, the lab helped develop the hush-hush X-37B robotic spaceplane (pictured at Building 31) and the hypersonic X-51 missile. “They make the weapons and one-offs that scare the sh*t out of the other guys,” James Lamont, a former lab employee, told Danger Room in an email. Lamont, a rocket scientist, left Huntington Beach in 2008.
A series of corporate missteps doomed the lab, Lamont said. He blamed Boeing’s marketing department for adding unnecessary layers of bureaucracy to Building 31. “Customers who were used to plainly walking in and fixing the U.S. government’s issues now had multiple departments and skyrocketing costs to deal with.”
The bureaucracy drove up costs, according to Gary Quick, a longtime lab employee. “It’s an inverted pyramid that’s got us at the pointed end — and it’s crushing us,” Quick, a diver trained to recover rocket parts, told Danger Room.
Around the same time, Boeing moved to cut lab employees’ retirement benefits. “That’s a trend we know that is ongoing throughout America,” Quick said. Hundreds of workers went on strike in November 2005 to protest the cuts. “We sat outside for 93 days and it was horrible,” Quick recalled.
In the wake of the strike, Boeing began assigning Building 31’s work to other labs. The bad blood hastened the departure of many lab employees — Lamont, for instance — further undermining the lab’s prospects and making it easier for Boeing to justify closing the facility. “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy,” Quick said.
In an email to employees, lab director Randy Surch promised to look for “current and future placement opportunities for our people,” potentially preserving the hard-earned expertise of some of Building 31’s 200 scientists and engineers. Other former employees have found work at start-ups, including private space-exploration firm SpaceX.
But Building 31’s employees aren’t its only valuable resources. “The lab has a footprint no one else can match,” Lamont said. “Three square blocks of strategic space R&D, built in the heyday of rocket development and honed to perfection for 60-plus years. Need a better material? Go to the metallurgy lab. Need to know what it will do in space, go to T-Vac [the thermal-vacuum department]. Need to know how it will perform in flight? Dynamics and Structures [department].
“It’s a Silicon Valley of strategic space for the U.S. government,” Lamont added, “and Boeing’s crappy leadership ran it into the ground.”