Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems president Tom Vice remembers spending 16h days more than 26 years ago inside a once tightly-secured factory in Palmdale, California, as a flight controls engineer preparing the flying-wing B-2 for first flight on 17 July 1989.

“We lived in these little vans testing the flight control system on the airplane, and it was really – and I can’t characterise it as anything else – but it was really cool,” Vice says.

Vice’s distant recollection came as he was standing inside the same factory – known as Building 401, Site 4 – in mid-December. An assembly line for the centre fuselage of the Lockheed Martin F-35 occupies a little less than half of the building’s 1 million square feet. The rest, including the cavernous hall once occupied by the B-2 programme, lies empty.

Northrop executives aren’t allowed to directly reference the US Air Force’s long-range strike-bomber (LRS-B), a nearly $80 billion programme the USAF awarded to the company on 30 October that is now locked in a legal dispute with the rival Boeing/Lockheed Martin team.

But it seemed obvious the space inside Building 4 in Palmdale won’t be empty for long, if the USAF defeats the Boeing team’s protest. Northrop executives aren’t allowed to confirm the empty hall will host final assembly of 80-100 LRS-B aircraft, but they can talk about plans to next year convert the space back into a secured production facility, with a wall to shield the area from the unclassified F-35 assembly bay.

Lest anyone worry the space may be unsuited for building a modern, long-range bomber, Northrop executives are careful to remind visitors of why the building was constructed in the first place.

“This whole facility was built to build 132 B-2’s,” says Tommy Tomlinson, Northrop’s sector vice-president of strategic operations.

The facility – technically, the US Air Force Plant 42, which is leased to Northrop – also has room to grow. Northrop already operates from Site 4 and Site 3, where it builds the RQ-4 Global Hawk and maintains the B-2 fleet. Across the Edwards AFB runway are sites 7 and 8, where Northrop intends to lease another 1 million square feet of additional production space, Tomlimson says.

The combined site is growing to accommodate more than LRS-B. Northrop also is ramping up to bid for a contract to replace the US Air Force’s T-38 Talon trainer fleet and recapitalise the E-8C Joint STARS fleet. At the same time, Building 401 is already set to support the F-35 programme’s goal to deliver 195 aircraft in 2020, Tomlinson says.

The F-35 assembly process was developed from an internal initiative in 2001 called Factory of the Future. Northrop now refers to that project as Phase 1. A Phase 2 is now on the drawing boards. Northrop plans to open a new factory in which a single line can build multiple types of aircraft instead of only one, Vice says.

Only a year ago, some analysts publicly wondered if Northrop would survive as a standalone company whether it won or lost LRS-B. Now the Falls Church, Virginia-based company is preparing for rapid growth and taking a new approach to developing products.

Acknowledging criticisms of the US aerospace industry’s low-risk approach, Vice said Northrop’s aerospace sector has fundamentally changed internally. With a new research, technology and advanced design group named NG Next, a cadre of engineers is designing 50 new aircraft a year, while vice-president Kevin Mickey’s advanced design organization is charged with demonstrating one new product, such as an all-new aircraft, every year, Vice says.

The company’s goal is to reprise the spirit and progress witnessed in the 1940s and 1950s at Edwards, when it was known as Muroc Field. With encouragement from Department of Defense leadership, Northrop wants to leverage new manufacturing and simulation technology to re-energize experimentation in the aerospace industry.

“You think about how many airplanes were flying on Muroc airfield in the 1940s and 50s. There really wasn’t a lot of new designs in the 90s,” Vice says. “I think the dynamics of today are different. The design tools, the manufacturing tools lets you build demonstrators today at a fraction of the cost. So you can experiment, design and fly. We think it’s going to be different.”