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Our History

The Beginning
In his speech during the dedication ceremony in October 1988, JPL Director Lew Allen explained MDL’s genesis: “NASA, meeting with members of the Caltech Board of Trustees, requested that JPL consider establishing a center of excellence in space microelectronics.” Indeed, this request came in July 1983 during a meeting of the Trustees’ JPL committee in Washington DC, from Burton Edelson, who had been appointed as NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Sciences just a year earlier. Edelson’s proposal was actually a response to a letter from Mary Scranton, the chair of the Trustees’ JPL committee, asking Edelson whether there were new areas, other than robotic exploration, in which JPL could take on the lead responsibility for NASA.

The Creation of the MDL
Allen became a strong supporter of the concept and delegated the task of organizing a new microelectronics program to Terry Cole, who was JPL’s Chief Technologist at the time. Cole identified several initial research areas: photon detectors, especially for infrared and submillimeter wavelengths; solid-state lasers; neural networks and custom microcircuits; and parallel computation. The basic idea was to build the new program on a base of activities that were already underway at JPL and Caltech. Cole’s initial program represented a combination of projects that would be done both at the materials and device level, such as detectors and lasers, and at the system level, such as parallel computation. Device development required a new cleanroom with sophisticated processing equipment, so plans for the MDL facility were generated. By January 1987, the Center for Space Microelectronics Technology (CSMT) had been established with Carl Kukkonen serving as its Director, and construction of the new NASA-funded MDL building was started. With the recruitment of new staff, acquisition and installation of new device processing equipment, and completion of the building, the MDL was in full operation by 1990.

Restructuring for Growth
Over the years the scientists and technologists who use the MDL’s capabilities had become distributed across many organizations at JPL. Although this provided good alignment with specific observational capabilities, it caused the MDL to lose institutional focus and dilute its identity.

In 2007, under the leadership of Thomas Luchik, the organizational structure of the MDL had been realingned so that the vast majority of our innovators who require the capability of the MDL are now located in a single section within the Instruments Division. Professor Jonas Zmuidzinas was appointed as the first director of MDL, with the core MDL groups integrated into a single section. Because of this realignment, MDL is continuing to see increased efficiency in operations.

2007 was also the first year the Laboratory began publishing annual reports detailing the contributions to JPL and NASA that MDL has made and is continuing to make. Throughout the 1990s, MDL’s work had been previously reported under the CSMT umbrella in an annual publication entitled “Space Microelectronics,” publication and CSMT itself disappeared as a result of the management restructuring.

Investments for the Future
MDL’s active facility is continuing to enjoy a number of upgrades, both large and small. Significant investments in new processing equipment and building updates are continuing to be made thanks to the vision, commitment, and support of JPL management and especially the JPL Office of the Chief Scientist and Chief Technologist.

With over 25 years of operation, the MDL looks forward with high expectation to continued innovation and invention in our microdevice and nano technologies that will enable JPL to make unprecedented discoveries in pursuit of its prime mission, contributing in unique ways to projects of national interest and enabling tomorrow what we can only imagine today.