Located on thirty-nine thousand wooded acres in Coffee and Franklin Counties, AEDC is the world's most diverse complex of aerospace ground simulation test facilities and one of the most unusual U.S. Air Force installations. Approximately three thousand civilian scientists and support personnel work with a military staff of several hundred, operating over fifty aerodynamic and propulsion wind tunnels, rocket and turbine engine test cells, space chambers, arc heaters, and ballistic ranges to simulate flight conditions from sea level to outer space and from subsonic speeds to over Mach 20. Virtually every modern aircraft's design, engine and weapons system, missile, space vehicle, and probe have been tested in the center's three major test complexes. World War II-vintage equipment from the Bavarian Motor Works in Munich forms the original core of the Engine Test Facility (ETF), which also includes the world's three largest rocket test cells. The von Karman Gas Dynamics Facility (VKF) honors famed scientist Dr. Theodore von Karman. The Propulsion Wind Tunnel complex (PWT) is an International Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.
In 1951 President Harry S. Truman vowed that the U.S. would become the international leader of aeronautical development when he dedicated AEDC to the memory of the Army Air Force's visionary commander, General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold. Alarmed by the rapid advances of German aeronautical technology during World War II, Arnold enlisted von Karman to lead the Scientific Advisory Group (SAG) in assessing the situation in Europe in relation to national security. SAG's report, “Toward New Horizons,” became AEDC's blueprint and included Dr. Frank Wattendorf's recommendation to provide leading civilian and military scientists with German equipment at a state-of-the-art testing and evaluation center.
Officials selected U.S. Army Camp Forrest (1940-46) near Tullahoma as the site of the new facility. The site provided ample power and water resources, while its remoteness protected civilians from testing hazards and provided security. Surrounding communities quickly adopted space race slogans and symbols. Tullahoma became the “Wind Tunnel City,” and AEDC and the University of Tennessee combined to create the UT Space Institute in the mid-1960s. Motlow State Community College incorporated a rocket launch on its 1969 official seal.
Arnold Research Organization (ARO) designed and operated Arnold Center until 1980. The expression “going out to ARO” continues in the local lexicon, though the company no longer exists.
As the area's largest employer, AEDC heavily influences south-central Tennessee, both economically and culturally. An annual budget exceeding $360 million attracts related industries, subcontractors, and employees from across the nation and around the world. The culturally diverse work force merging into the local scene lends a cosmopolitan flavor to surrounding communities.
With the end of the Cold War, security pressures diminished. AEDC held its first open house in 1986. AEDC's mission continues to broaden, including commercial testing, the consolidation and transfer of navy jet engine testing, and the creation of service and support alliances with neighboring institutions and municipalities. The base has expanded its testing into new fields such as DECADE, which is a nuclear weapons effects facility. A report issued in 1995 titled New World Vistas set goals and objectives for AEDC into the twenty-first century. The U.S. Air Force Materiel Command manages AEDC, with a navy captain as vice-commander. Sverdrup Technology, Inc., operates all test facilities, and ACS provides center support.