Decades ago, I was an employee of the US Navy. I worked at the Naval Air Development Center in Warminster, PA, the NADC. I found out they had a centrifuge, a rotating mechanism that generates high g-forces by the centrifugal force of spinning at high speed. This one was large enough to test humans tolerance to the high G-levels. There was an ongoing call for volunteers which I promptly answered during in my first few weeks of employment. The operators of the centrifuge were welcoming, as they are always looking for human guinea pigs, and promised me a pizza if I volunteered. There was one catch, that was that I needed my manager’s approval. I asked him and he firmly refused. He didn’t want his employees doing anything not related to his department’s work! Well, that was the end of that.
I was not aware at the time that the Johnsville Centrifuge (as it was called when founded in the 1950’s) had been used to train the Mercury and Gemini astronauts1 2, in addition to dozens if not hundreds of naval aviators, giving the device a bit of historical relevance.
In due time, the Naval Air Development Center was closed during a round of military base closings4. I had since left to find employment elsewhere and the Naval Air Development Center faded into history, but not without a historic marker, which is still visible from a restaurant parking lot today. The land the base occupied has been repurposed, public parks, senior housing, a business campus now occupy the site. The centrifuge itself was operated as a roadside attraction5 where guided tours were given, until it too was closed in 2008.
So, is it not there anymore? Some folk have proposed the concept of a science museum on the former NADC grounds, the Johnsville Centrifuge and Science Museum. The centrifuge gondola, the capsule the human test subjects would occupy while being spun around, is part of the proposed museum and science center, though it is in a decrepit, neglected state. The museum promoters show photos of the device in a rusted decaying state.
But what about the centrifuge? Is it not there anymore? Well it is! But it’s … different. The centrifuge building and apparently the mechanism still exist, though in an entirely new form. The centrifuge is now a party site! Rent the Fuge!
In its new incarnation, the facility is a dance club and restaurant, the room with the centrifuge mechanism is now the dance floor. The previous use of the centrifuge in training astronauts is mentioned in their web site, something they are proud to advertise.
I tried to find meanings in all this, and it’s not hard to come up with a few. Ideas about swords-to-plowshares come to mind, or perhaps the loss of the spirit of scientific exploration. I could go further and remark on how raw hedonism has overtaken scientific and industrious work. But maybe that’s what it is all for anyway? Don’t we want future generations to live easy, fun filled lives? Imagine a future where people of all ages are forever raving all night in the ruins of the cold war military machinery. You have to admit it’s a lot better than a boot stamping on a human face forever9.
But perhaps its best not to look for significance where there is none. The only real conclusion is the old adage that the only thing constant is change. The other conclusion is that I have a good idea of where to hold a great party.
- “Spinning Out Heroes: The Johnsville Centrifuge” by Andrew King, a short history of the Johnsville centrifuge”
- “Before the moon voyage, astronauts rode the ‘diabolical’ spinning gondola in Warminster“, https://www.inquirer.com/science/moon-landing-centrifuge-johnsville-warminster-20190711.html, The Philadelphia Inquirer, retrieved 7/15/2019
- The Centrifuge as a road side tourist attraction
- Quoting George Orwell in 1984 https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Nineteen_Eighty-Four