This is the third edition of Orders of Magnitude, a concise history of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and its successor agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). At a time when American pride has been restored by the return of the Space Shuttle to flight,this edition reminds us of our first departures from the surface of the Earth and commemorates the 75th anniversary of the creation of the NACA--our first national institution for the advance of powered human flight. In less than half a century America progressed from the sandy hills of Kitty Hawk along the Atlantic Ocean into the vast "new ocean" of space. The pace of technological change necessary for such voyages has been so rapid, especially in the last quarter century, that it is easy to forget the extent to which aeronautical research and development--whether in propulsion, structures, materials, or control systems--have provided the fundamental basis for efficient and reliable civil and military flight capabilities. Thus it is fitting that this edition of NASA's Orders of Magnitude not only updates the historical record, but restores aeronautics to its due place in the history of the agency and of mankind's most fascinating and continuing voyage.
Perspective comes with the passage of time. Events since the last edition of Orders of Magnitude (1980) suggest that this nation's ability to sustain the enthusiasm and the commitment of public resources necessary for a vigorous national space program can, like the phases of our nearest celestial neighbor,wax and wane. The Apollo-Saturn vehicle that carried the first humans to the Moon was lofted not only by a remarkable mobilization of engineering research and know-how, but by the political will of a nation startled by the Soviet Union's display of space technology with Sputnik I, launched 4 October 1957.Universities and industry joined their considerable talents with NASA's to carry out the Apollo program's epoch-making exploratory missions in a truly national effort.
But responsiveness to changing national concerns is a hallmark of democratic government and the United States' preoccupations shifted to more earthbound concerns even before the Apollo program was completed. Public concerns such as energy resources, the environment, "guns and butter," and fiscal restraint grew as a maturing aerospace technology broadened NASA's mission as well as its rationale. Developed as a more economical approach to routine space travel than "throw away" boosters, the Space Transportation System with its reusable Shuttle orbiter was only one of NASA's post-Apollo programs that reflected the new political climate of the 1970s and early 1980s.
As we approach the 1990s, however, my sense is that the nation's interest
in space exploration and exploitation, following a roller coaster of public
interest (apathy, competing priorities, a brief moment in the sun with
the pride of recovery) is on the brink of a period of such excitement,
discovery,and wonder as to make the Apollo period pale in comparison. The
scheduled voyages to Venus and Jupiter, the launch of the Great Observatories
like the Hubble Space Telescope, the establishment of a permanent human
presence in space with the space station Freedom, the development of a
takeoff-to-orbit aircraft (the National Aerospace Plane), and the beginnings
of engineering solutions to the technological requirements for expanding
a human presence further into the solar system portend an era in which
America, and indeed the world, will be bombarded with knowledge about the
universe through which we pass so fleetingly. That knowledge, garnered
in the finest traditions of intellectual endeavor that have characterized
the history of the NACA and NASA,will foster a new vitality that will raise
to new heights the cyclical pattern of public support for a strong national
civil aeronautics and space program.While most of us are caught up in the
changing events of each passing day, history--as this new edition of Orders
of Magnitude: A History of the NACA and NASA, 1915-1990 attests--reminds
us of the continuities amid change and of our debt to those who have brought
us the capability to write the next chapter in the history of humans out
of Earth's bounds.
H. Hollister Cantus
Associate Administrator for External Relations
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
February 1987-November 1988