In the midst of World War II, adequate facilities were needed by the California Institute of Technology for test and evaluation of rockets. At the same time, the Navy needed a new proving ground for aviation ordnance. Cal Tech's Dr. Charles C. Lauritsen and then Cmdr. Sherman E. Burroughs met and formed a pact to find a site that would meet both their needs.
The Navy established China Lake as the Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) in November 1943. Its mission was defined in a letter by the Secretary of the Navy, ".... a station having for its primary function the research, development and testing of weapons, and having additional function of furnishing primary training in the use of such weapons." Testing began within a month of the Station's formal establishment. The vast and sparsely populated desert with near perfect flying weather and practically unlimited visibility, proved an ideal location not only for test and evaluation activities, but also for a complete research and development establishment.
The early Navy-Cal Tech partnership established a pattern of cooperation and interaction between civilian scientists and engineers, experienced military personnel and defense contractors that has made China Lake one of the preeminent research, development, test and evaluation institutions in the world.
In 1950, NOTS scientists and engineers developed the air-intercept missile (AIM) 9 Sidewinder, which has become the world’s most used and most copied air-to-air missile. A few of the other rockets and missiles developed or tested at China Lake have included the Mighty Mouse, Zuni, Sidewinder, Shrike, Joint Stand-off Weapon (JSOW) and Joint Direct-Attack Munition (JDAM).
In July 1967, NOTS China Lake and the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Corona, California, became the Naval Weapons Center. The Corona facilities were closed and their functions transferred to the desert in 1971. In July 1979, the mission and functions of the National Parachute Test Range in El Centro were transferred to China Lake.
The Naval Weapons Center and the Pacific Missile Test Center Point Mugu were disestablished in January 1992 and joined with naval units at Albuquerque and White Sands, N.M. as a single command - the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division. At the same time, the physical plant at China Lake was designated as a Naval Air Weapons Station - currently NAWS - and became host of the Weapons Division, performing the base-keeping functions.
The Station's role in the community has evolved from that of primary landlord and provider of services to that of being primarily a good neighbor. The present NAWS housing area, much smaller than that of the 1960s, is sufficient to support the Station's military. The community area of China Lake was annexed by the City of Ridgecrest in 1982 and today the spirit of community extends to residents both on and off the base.
The pioneering spirit and can-do attitude that helped early residents through China Lake's formative years have not disappeared. The direction and focus have changed during the years, but the China Lake community - military, civilian and contract personnel - remains active, interested and a vital part of the continued success of the United States Navy.