Lauritsen, Fowler families visit China Lake lab


Lauritsen, Fowler families visit China Lake labScott O’Neil, NAWCWD executive director, hosted members of the Lauritsen and Fowler families for a visit and tour at China Lake on Nov. 9.

“When I heard you were coming, I just had to see you,” O’Neil said as he greeted Eric Lauritsen and Margaret Press, grandchildren of Dr. Charles C. Lauritsen; and Mary Fowler and Martha Schoenemann, daughters of Dr. William A. Fowler.

Lauritsen was instrumental in establishing the Naval Ordnance Test Station in Inyokern before it moved to China Lake and eventually became NAWCWD. He was also in charge of the California Institute of Technology rocket program that brought Fowler, who won a Nobel Prize in physics in 1983, here for the first time in late 1943.

O’Neil provided an overview of China Lake’s 70 years of existence and shared examples of how its founding principles are alive and well.

He also talked about what it was like for him when he arrived here in 1972. As a junior professional, O’Neil took four different tours which helped him get to know the people, technology and culture at China Lake.

“We’re still doing that today,” he said. “The whole idea is to help us continue and transfer our professional culture which goes back to the very beginning days of China Lake.”

He talked about the importance of one of the founding principles that connected civilians who were trained in science and technology with the military who understood what was needed operationally.

“I am pleased to hear that they are maintaining the values of the early days and still connecting civilian science and engineering with the military needs,” said Eric.

O’Neil drew comparisons between the challenges faced by forward-thinkers like Lauritsen and Fowler with today’s workforce.

“When I hear the stories about the old days at China Lake, it sounds like the same problems we are working on,” he said. “It’s not just building the components, but it’s also trying to figure out how to make a weapon operationally effective for our country.

“The guys from Caltech were worried about the same things. They had to work out the nuances of building rockets and getting them to work, and then figure out how to deliver them.”

Martha said she appreciated learning more about what her father worked on while he was at China Lake.

“This visit connects me with my father again and it connects me with some of our family stories,” she said. “I’m realizing that he was more important here than I knew.”

The idea for this tour came about in January when Eric and Margaret made an impromptu visit from Pasadena to China Lake. They planned to return this month and reached out to Mary and Martha, who just happened to have plans to visit California from the East Coast at the same time.

“My primary purpose was to connect with the family past that we didn’t know much about,” Margaret said. “Scott’s talk has helped remind me how important it is to be able to defend our country. That’s what Charlie’s motivation was all those years. That patriotism that brought him to China Lake is clearly still here.”

The four kids, who grew up playing together in Pasadena while their fathers and grandfather worked together at the California Institute of Technology, said it was a wonderful opportunity to reunite. They shared memories of hanging out together while their fathers and grandfather would gather with co-workers every Friday night for socializing, singing and talking about work late into the night. (Eric and Margaret’s father, Dr. Thomas Lauritsen, was also a pioneering scientist here and at Caltech.)

O’Neil acknowledged that that was another tradition that carried over at China Lake.

Mary said she was thrilled to see firsthand the connection her family has with China Lake.

“I had done some research but reading about it isn’t the same as coming here and seeing it for yourself,” she said.

“I’m impressed by how history is honored here and how the tradition of innovation continues.”

O’Neil, reluctant to cut short his visit with the Lauritsens and the Fowlers, also attended lunch and a presentation by the Lauritsens at the Historic USO Building, an event coordinated by Liz Babcock and sponsored by all three historical entities in Ridgecrest — the Historical Society of the Upper Mojave Desert, the Maturango Museum and the China Lake Museum Foundation.— ed.

Story First Published: 2013-11-20