During the halcyon era between World War I and World War II, the NACA's work on airfoils, engine cowlings, icing, and other problems drew the attention of aeronautical engineers around the world. There were also institutional changes, especially in the 1930s, when the agency became more attuned to industry trends and became more politically aware in its interaction with congressional committees. World War II brought the most dramatic changes: research geared to national security; growth from one small facility to three spacious centers sited coast-to-coast; and ballooning budgets and personnel rosters. For all its successes, the agency also lost some of its luster as European advances in gas turbines and high-speed flight received postwar attention.
The postwar era entailed Cold War tensions and national security budgets that promoted advanced flight research. The NACA flourished. Cooperative programs with the military brought the X-1 and X-15 into being. These programs also moved the NACA out of the tradition of research and flight testing by adding responsibilities for design and program management as well. The old "advisory" committee had become a major R&D bureaucracy.
The shock of the successful Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 altered the NACA forever. Granted billion-dollar budgets by Congress, the new NASA was thrust into an international spotlight as America's answer to the Soviet Union for leadership in space exploration. With four new Centers, NASA rapidly developed skills in the novel field of astronautics. Personnel also had to build new skills as managers of huge budgets and mature aerospace contractors scattered across the continent. The spotlight of the space race also intensified the agency's problems when projects missed deadlines and when astronauts died. Still, Apollo was a successful effort and an historic achievement. While issues of American and Soviet competition for global influence colored the origins of the program and the triumphant voyage of Apollo 11, the new awareness of the fragile existence of Earth within our universe also fostered a promising spirit of international cooperation.
The post-Apollo era was not necessarily clear in terms of missions and purpose. The sense of urgency that spurred Apollo had dissipated. In aeronautics, NASA made sure progress in hypersonic flight and began highly beneficial programs to control pollution, reduce engine noise, and enhance fuel economy--programs that assumed growing importance in an environmentally conscious society. In astronautics, the Space Shuttle was a fascinating program, although critics maintained that it was a complex system with no major or scientific mission to justify its expense. A proposed Space Station, which would absorb numerous Shuttle flights, was plagued by budget issues; it was not expected to be operational until some time in the 1990s.
Meanwhile, the loss of Challenger in 1986 underscored the risk of relying so heavily on the Shuttle at the expense of expendable launch vehicles. Reorganizing priorities for military and civil payloads proved to be a frustrating exercise. A renewed wave of criticism concerning lower budgets for space science surfaced, a reminder of controversies over manned versus unmanned flights that had been going on since the early days of the space program. There was also concern stemming from various studies that noted the constraining effects that seemed endemic to large bureaucracies, as well as the demographic realities of a work force--heavily recruited in the 1960s--that might lose its sense of adventure as the time for retirement loomed.
In 1990, the 75th anniversary of its origins as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA nonetheless appears to be on a steady course. With new initiatives in commercial space programs and a broad spectrum of projects for applied science and technology in daily life, NASA surely has ventured far from its aeronautical origins in 1915. But the dynamics of flight--whether spacecraft or aircraft--still pervade the agency's principal activities. Beginning in 1988 with the STS-26 mission of the Discovery, manned missions aboard the Shuttle have resumed. At the same time, use of expendable launch vehicles have picked up, evidence that NASA planners are serious in attempting to broaden their options for getting payloads into orbit. Looking ahead, the Hubble Space Telescope is only one of many promising ventures in the area of space science and applications. The final agreements for international development of the Space Station have been signed. A broad spectrum of international scientific investigations are underway. NASA has also joined with the U.S. DoD and the United Kingdom pioneers in vertical takeoff and landing aircraft like the Harrier to foster the research and technology for an advanced short takeoff and landing aircraft, continuing a European connection that dates back to the founding of the agency in 1915. The forward swept wing X-29 continues an impressive flight research program; elsewhere, the development of low-speed propfan technology promises significant gains in fuel efficiency for subsonic airliners of the future.
The dynamics of flight promise to be just as challenging and fascinating in the future as they have been in the past.