[xix] Langley has had a remarkable history, not only during three decades as NASA Langley Research Center, but in an earlier period as well: during Langley's four decades as the flagship research facility of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Long before spaceflight, Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (later, Langley Aeronautical Laboratory) began its work incubating the ideas and hatching the technology that made American aviation take off and fly. James R. Hansen here offers us that story.
More than just an outlining of historical facts is to be found here, for Hansen has captured the very culture of Langley. He has done so by illustrating what I see as the four major aspects of the laboratory: people, facilities, program, and customer relations.
People, of course, have always been the most important aspect of this unique place, so it is good to see the people themselves studied so carefully in its first complete history: people like Eastman N. Jacobs, who energetically engineered many of the early programs, and Theodore Theodorsen, whose powers as an applied mathematician and theorist made him sometimes the rival but always the complement of men like Jacobs; or like Max M. Munk, the brilliant and difficult prodigy of Langley's early years; or like Fred E. Weick, an aviation pioneer for most of this century; or like the skilled makers of special instruments, tools, and models who practically invented the various fields of supporting work for aerodynamical research; or like John Stack, Richard T. Whitcomb, Robert T. Jones, Robert R. Gilruth, John V. Becker, and all the other engineers and researchers whose names permeate this book. Hansen is seriously concerned with the motivations, the training, the personalities, the hopes of people who cause aeronautical science and technology to evolve. Indeed the very title of the book, in stating his theme of the practical-minded engineer moving the laboratory's work toward feasible, useful solutions of aviation problems, shows Hansen's respect for the importance of people in the story -of the laboratory. No doubt there are many benefits for the rest of us in the work of historians; surely the chance to see and know as individuals the people who preceded us must be one of them.
[xx] The people who lead a research institution, and the people who do the work, always to a greater or lesser degree face the same kinds of choices regarding the next two of the four important aspects of Langley: facilities and program. How, for instance, can the allotted budget best be used? How much money will there actually be? How much risk should be taken in building a machine that may not help you learn precisely what you need to learn? How good is the chance that it will help you learn answers to the questions you do not at present even know enough to ask? Should resources be committed to investigation of this or that possibly bright but predictably expensive-to--study idea? How far should you stray from the planned path of a research program to seek for possible extra benefits when they appear attainable?
Engineer in Charge conveys a wealth of Langley's institutional experience in dealing with these kinds of questions about facilities and program. Hansen tells how Langley's first wind tunnel came to have an open circuit-a safe and proven design, but much less useful than the closed-circuit tunnels then coming into their own. The rapid subsequent evolution of wind tunnels, much of which took place at Langley, involved further choices that required commitment of funds and time and effort without certainty of getting the hoped-for results. And always the facilities needed to be stretched to maximize the benefits of the research program. Readers of Hansen's book will all but hear the Langley engineers of a half-century ago saying, if only we can build this or that new tunnel, or try this or that new piece of gear, or get permission to work on such-and-such new technology, we might really get somewhere .... Readers will find themselves watching the evolution of the facilities and program at NACA Langley, from the early quantum improvements in aircraft design to the pre-NASA work that foreran the various space programs.
Hansen also traces Langley's fourth important aspect, its relations with the industrial, scientific, and technical community it was built to serve. While the laboratory has a strong tradition of independent research, it also has a tradition of solving the problem of the moment-of "fighting fires." During my tenure as Langley director, the most striking example of this ability was the work of over 300 Langley engineers and technicians on the space shuttle thermal protection system, the tiles that protect the shuttle from the intense heat of reentry into the atmosphere from space. But there have been many other examples of Langley's ability and readiness to apply concerted effort in overcoming aeronautical development problems. Readers will find them here.
Readers will also find here the background of these customer relations-not only the "what" of Langley's work with the larger aeronautical [xxi] community of which it has been a part, but the "how" and the "why" as well. While Hansen has defined for himself the primary task of telling Langley's story in terms of Langley itself, he has nonetheless devoted extensive effort to showing how Langley worked with Washington, with aircraft manufacturers, and with the armed services and others. He brings to life such episodes as the old annual manufacturers' conferences, the pre-World War II affairs that were for Langley part business, part public relations, even part fun; he shows how the laboratory coordinated its various efforts for military aviation; he even probes the various ways in which Langley drew on international resources, from individual aerodynamicists in friendly countries to captured research results at the end of the second world war.
The importance of a history such as this book is to better understand the character of an organization and what it will mean to the future. There is a living memory at Langley, an awareness of the triumphs, and for that matter the failures, of the laboratory's past. But a living memory is in most respects an incomplete and anecdotal memory, a mixture of hearsay and hand-me-down impressions, a collection of stories embellished by time and imagination, an awareness of some of the facts, a misunderstanding of others. What is needed is a systematic arrangement of what is known, a synthesis of what is recorded on paper and film with what is remembered by surviving participants-in short, what is needed is a sort of accurate rejuvenation of the living memory.
Langley has only just begun to be called upon by the aerospace community for the things only Langley can provide. NASA has called upon James ft. Hansen for an accurate rejuvenation of Langley's living memory. Here it is.