September 7, 2011
A Moment, a Loss, a Shift in Reality: A Decade After 9/11, APL Continues to Respond
APL’s collective, immediate reactions to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001—shock, anger, fear, grief—mirrored those from across a wounded nation.
Work at APL stopped, as small groups of staff members silently followed TV and Web reports. As the scope of the tragedy escalated, confusion and disbelief ran parallel with questions of “what to do” for the Laboratory and for our families. Supervisors sought to account for staff members who were off site. Not knowing if events at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, and in rural Pennsylvania were the beginning of a broader attack and who might be a target, APL’s security force stepped up parking lot patrols and visitor checks, and mail delivery was stopped. At 11 a.m., as a precaution, the decision was made to send staff home.
It was soon determined that one of our own, Ron Vauk, who was pulling Navy reserve duty at the Pentagon, was missing. It would be a week before confirmation of his death would be made. This painful personal loss, and the realization that we were inexorably changed as individuals and as a country, set the stage for changes at APL that have strategically evolved during the past 10 years.
“Sept. 11 was an inflection point for the Lab,” says Jerry Krill, APL’s assistant director for science and technology. “We learned what the next century would be about and found our footing, a new mission for the new millennium.”
The Laboratory would still have its traditional work, but it became clear that APL’s skills would also be applied in new ways.
"We learned what the next century would be about and found our footing, a new mission for the new millennium."
- Jerry Krill, APL assistant director for science and technology
Sensor research, rooted in Gulf War-era efforts to detect chemical weapons on the battlefield, had led to small, accurate devices that could be deployed anywhere. The appearance of deadly anthrax powder in several letters just weeks after Sept. 11—an actual domestic bioattack—amplified the need for those tools.
“When the anthrax letters showed up, we were able to immediately engage with the best bioweapon detection and remediation technology available,” says Space Department Head John Sommerer, who was directing APL’s research center in 2001. “A lot of this work underpinned what became the Homeland Protection Business Area.” “Homeland Security wasn’t a traditional military [field], but it made sense and fit APL’s model of national service really well,” says Air and Missile Defense Department Head Conrad Grant. “Furthermore, there wasn’t a person at APL that wouldn’t jump at the chance to contribute to protecting our family and friends at home.”
The other key commodity of this new “war on terror” was information. APL had already been working on projects to collect intelligence and protect information systems critical to national security; after Sept. 11 and the onset of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the demand for that work grew exponentially. “Our sponsors needed to change directions,” says Assistant Director for Strategy Ron Luman. “Their systems all focused on larger military movements and political intelligence, and now they had to be able to find individuals and small groups of individuals. It was a different type of enemy.”
"There wasn't a person at APL that wouldn't jump at the chance to contribute to protecting our family and friends at home."
- Conrad Grant, Air and Missile Defense Department head
“The focus on cyber became clearer, but what was a little unexpected was the emphasis we ended up placing on special operations,” says Director Ralph Semmel. “That ultimately led to creation of the Special Ops Business Area; it grew out of technologies and capabilities we developed that the [special ops] community and related communities could use.”
Like the drive to create the VT fuze —a technology that contributed directly to allied victory in World War II—or the response to Sputnik, which led APL to create satellite navigation and enter the space business, Sept. 11 and the subsequent war on terror were galvanizing events that influenced every aspect of Laboratory work.
“Traditionally, APL has been about physics and engineering,” says Dan Tyler, head of the National Security Technology Department. “But the new security challenges are in chemistry, biology, radiation-nuclear, explosives, and the whole realm of cyber. These are new skills, and it’s a good sign for the Lab that we managed to create domain expertise and we did it in a way that is consistent with the APL culture, consistent with us being a University Affiliated Research Center. We didn’t just go out and buy chemists. We have top-notch people and we really stepped up strategically to embrace new areas, and we did it rather rapidly.”
“The Lab had been engaged in information operations and had been supporting special operations before 9/11, but they were a fraction of their current size,” recalls Director Emeritus Rich Roca, who, in September 2001, was less than 2 years into an eventual decade-long tenure as Laboratory head. “The cyber business area would have been established no matter what; the homeland security area may have remained parts of other initiatives as opposed to being a concentrated entity unto itself. But obviously 9/11, and the country’s response to it, did send us in a particular way.”
Some career paths changed, and others began. Semmel, for example, moved from the research center to the fledgling information operations (later infocentric operations) area, feeling that was where he could best make a direct operational contribution. He eventually became the first head of the Applied Information Sciences Department and guided the growth of APL’s cyber work.
Kerri Phillips, a high school junior when the attacks occurred, wanted to be an aerospace engineer and explore space. Instead, she decided to learn more about unmanned aerial vehicles and fighter aircraft, and pursued a doctorate focused on flight control. “That research provided me with the wonderful opportunity to work with the Guidance, Navigation, and Control Group in the Air and Missile Defense Department, where I truly believe I can be successful in achieving my goal to help protect the United States,” she says.
And APL’s physical campus changed: concrete posts and planters block vehicles from getting too close to Building 1; a wrought iron fence runs along the campus perimeter; security cameras watch at all entry locations; larger buffer areas separate APL buildings and the surrounding roads. The mail room is equipped with X-ray machines and metal detectors to scan every letter and package that comes into APL. And anyone entering through Building 1 passes a portrait memorializing Ron Vauk.
“Sept. 11 is something to remember because of the impact on the nation, the world, and, as a result, the Lab itself,” Semmel says. “It brought into sharp focus and reinforced the criticality of what we have done since the Lab’s founding: help to develop systems that could be used by warfighters, get things out the door quickly and affordably, and come up with very creative solutions that the government did not think of or think was possible.”