Yet the center grew and officially became known as the Muroc Flight Test Unit in the summer of 1947. Yeager's cracking of the sound barrier on Oct. 14, 1947, still reigns as its most significant flight. In 1954, the testing unit left its hangars and buildings on what is known as Edwards' South Base and moved northward to build its own facilities on the east side of the lake bed. The flight research center was still a tenant of the base but now a more independent operation.
For many who worked there, it was a great time in their lives, even though the conditions could be difficult. Swamp coolers, which made everything damp, were the only devices available to cool down interior work spaces. Sandstorms were a frequent nuisance, and grit got into everything.
But the worst of times were when a pilot died in a test accident. "The only way we could get data was sacrificing lives," Yeager said. "It's that blunt."
Many streets on the base are named for test pilots killed in crashes. One, in the Dryden complex, is Lilly Avenue.
"It was a family atmosphere in the old days," said Don Borchers, who started there in 1947 and was crew chief of an X-1. "Everyone knew everyone. Everyone loved Howard Lilly."
In May 1948, Lilly was flying a D-559-1, better known as a Skystreak, when the rocket-powered engine broke up shortly after takeoff and the aircraft plunged into the lake bed and exploded.
The cause of the accident was determined to be engine failure, and the crew was not to blame. But Borchers, who at the time was chief inspector of the unit, took it hard.
"I had to leave. I was devastated," said Borchers, now 74 and a Lancaster resident. He eventually went to work for the U.S. Postal Service and retired in 1977.
The center was named in 1976 for the late Hugh L. Dryden, a pioneering aeronautical scientist who was NACA's highest-ranking official at the time of Yeager's historic flight.
The current staff roster includes about 450 full-time government employees and an equal number of contract workers. The most recent annual budget for which figures are available totaled about $240 million.
Among the aircraft now used at the center for tests is the SR-71, the famed Blackbird spy plane that once flew from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., in 68 minutes and 17 seconds.
Instead of slide rules, employees now use computers. Thanks to highly advanced simulators, flight testing is more predictable. And all the buildings are air conditioned.
But some veterans miss the old days. For women, especially, the center offered a rare chance to break into new fields.
"I was going to go to nursing school, but then like most young girls at the time, I got sidetracked by marriage and a family," said Love.
A friend told her that jobs were available at the flight research center. She became what was known as a "computer."
The job of extracting and analyzing information from test instruments involved spending long hours over a small light box, measuring marks made on film during a flight. "You would get maybe 12 to 16 rolls of film from a test flight," said Love, now 74 and another Lancaster resident. "They would tell you the speed, altitude, acceleration."
All the "computers" in the days before electronic calculators and digital readouts were women. Love admitted the work was repetitious and at times tedious.
"I imagine a man would get very tired of that," she said.
But it gave her the chance to be a part of an exciting endeavor, and eventually she advanced to become an aeronautical engineering technician. She worked at the center for 25 years, until she retired.
"I just feel real blessed I got to be part of it," she said. "Reading the pilot notes, checking the test results. I was fascinated by everything."
The Dryden history, "On the Frontier," is available at no cost on a NASA World Wide Web site on the Internet: http:// www.dfrc.nasa.gov/History/Publications/SP-4303.