Those who work on brains of missile systems at Naval Support Facility Dahlgren get new $22 million facility
By CATHY DYSON | The Free Lance-Star | Published: November 3, 2018
NAVAL SUPPORT FACILITY DAHLGREN (Tribune News Service) — Among the hundreds gathered Thursday to celebrate the opening of state-of-the-art labs and offices at Naval Support Facility Dahlgren was a man considered a founding father of the program the new building houses.
Ray Hughey headed up the Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile program in the late 1950s and ’60s, when Dahlgren workers used the most powerful—and largest—computers in the world.
It was during the Cold War, and Hughey and his team worked on the Polaris, the first nuclear missiles launched from submarines. His photo is included in the “History Wall,” a feature of the new, 57,646-square-foot facility that cost $22 million.
Before the first successful launch of the Polaris in 1960, mathematicians and computer scientists at Dahlgren did the computations in their King George County labs. But they couldn’t just hit a computer button to transfer the information to submarines.
All those computations for location and trajectory were entered into punched cards—rectangular pieces of stiff paper, slightly smaller than envelopes. The cards were punched by hand on key punch machines and fed into card readers at sea.
Because each card held a limited amount of data—and missile calculations required complex information—lots of cards were needed, and they were stored in decks.
“The card decks got so long, you’d need another submarine to carry them,” Hughey recalled.
There were plenty of people, especially in the Air Force, who believed success wasn’t in the cards for Polaris, especially in the early days.
“But we knew it was gonna work,” Hughey said.
He and his wife, Nancy, both worked on the program. She did the calculations, which the rest of the team checked, for the first Polaris missile launched from Cape Canaveral and later, from a moving submarine.
While technology has changed the way SLBM workers do their jobs, the mission has remained the same, said John Fiore, technical director of Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division. It’s to provide the brains of the fire control system, which doesn’t suppress fires on ships and subs, but controls missiles from launch to target.
“That’s the bread and butter of the program,” Fiore said.
More than 300 employees work in the SLBM, part of Missile Support Facility. The program had been housed in the old, dilapidated Building 1200, as well as two other locations on base.
The first part of the new building was constructed in 1990, and in the 28 years since then, Dahlgren and Navy officials have lobbied to have the team members united under one roof.
“I’ve been waiting for this new complex to be completed so I could move my office over here before I retired,” said Jeffrey Kunkler, deputy program director for SLBM and Dahlgren employee for 37 years.
He happily reported that he moved in two weeks ago.
Indeed, the consolidation has been a long time coming, said Vice-Admiral Johnny Wolfe Jr., director of Strategic Systems Programs.
“It is a great honor to be here and to finally commemorate the opening of the the building,” he said, adding, “Yeah, finally.”
He and other speakers referenced work done at Dahlgren on Polaris missiles, then Poseidon, Trident I and the current version, Trident II. The SLBM is ranked as the Navy’s top priority program because it provides 70 percent of the nation’s nuclear deterrent capability, Wolfe said.
None of the work at sea would be possible “without the infrastructure to do this and the people to go into the buildings and do work that’s on the cutting edge,” Wolfe added.