The last decade of operations at Johnsville saw one of the centrifuge’s most important contributions. “Back in the ’90s there was a mandate from Congress that everybody should be able to go into the tactical cockpit, boys and girls, small people, big people,” says Shender. “We developed what we called the Gender Neutral Study, where we wanted to ask the question: What happens if you’re a small female and you get put into one of these high-performance jets? Can you fly? Can you eject? Can you hold your head up?” As it turned out, women can more than hold their own against the flyboys. “We established that they can certainly fly high-G maneuvers without any difficulty, and certainly [have] comparable acceleration tolerance with the men,” says Shender. “These female subjects had a good time doing it. And they didn’t complain nearly as much as the male subjects do.”
In 1996 the Warminster base fell victim to the Base Realignment and Closure Act, and the Naval Air Warfare Center moved to the Navy’s Patuxent River facility in Maryland, leaving the centrifuge behind. Veridian Corporation, a private contractor, kept it spinning for mostly Navy programs for a while, but by 1999 mounting costs forced the wheel into retirement. Although centrifuge work continues at other military and NASA centers, “we’re sort of gearing down,” Shender says regretfully. The center of the action appears to be shifting overseas, with new centrifuges in Sweden and Japan. None measures up to Johnsville in capabilities or sheer engineering chutzpah.
As for the Johnsville centrifuge, proposals for its future use range from the sedate, such as turning the facility into a museum, to the outlandish, such as turning it into a thrill ride—an unlikely scenario, given that the deaths of two riders on Epcot Center’s “Mission: Space” simulator were linked to G-induced stresses. Shender and Cloak continue their work in acceleration science at the Naval Air Warfare Center at Patuxent River, while veterans of the center like Bill Daymon meet at reunions to trade war stories. Regardless of whether the Johnsville centrifuge ever spins again, its legacy in aerospace history—and in the memories of all who rode it—is secure.