I grew up at Naval Air Weapons Station (nee Naval Weapons Center nee Naval Ordnance Test Station - bureaucracy at work) China Lake where my father was a top engineer. The base in those days operated much like the private space companies of today. Much of that culture is captured in the book "Sidewinder: Creative Missile Development at China Lake" which describes the freedom to tinker, rebuild and test things from what would have been scrap (radar antenna motors would be resued as the proof-of-concept drive motors for prototype missile seekers, for instance) and to, er, "repurpose" new equipment as necessary. Engineers might not expect to have a desk, carpet or file-cabinet but every one had their own fully equipped workbench chock full of signal generators, scopes, meters and whatever else they needed and they attracted a group of incredible engineers from Cal, Stanford, MIT, CalTech and the like who developed weapons like the Sidewinder, Walleye, HARM, Shrike and more - many of which the top brass hadn't even conceived of but the engineers knew were needed. Sidewinder was originally described as a "local fuse project" and developed skunkworks-style in-house with a variety of volunteer efforts and budget shuffling. It didn't become an official program until 5-years after it was started and was mature enough to demonstrate to Admiral Parsons at the Bureau of Ordnance. Nowdays that would result in congressional investigations and charges instead of praise.
Sadly China Lake, too, has devolved into knee-deep carpeted program-management offices overseeing outsourced contractors and no longer has the same attraction for the freewheeling inventor that it once did. Fortunately there are still places where the workbench-first ethos still thrives.