Oran Nicks' lifelong interest in flight began at age 2, when his uncle took him aloft in a barnstorming biplane. He began learning to fly when he was 16, earned an aeronautical engineering degree when he was 19, and obtained a pilot's license in 1945, while serving in the Air Corps. After World War II, he returned to college for a second degree and joined North American Aviation in 1948 as an aeronautical engineer. During his 10 years at North American he was involved in a supersonic cruise missile project (Navaho) and projects related to high-speed flight and rocket launches, conducting research and development testing at three NACA centers and at CalTech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He also participated in flight tests of missiles at Edwards Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral.
The launch of the Soviet Sputnik had a profound impact on Nicks' career. He organized a technical group to do space studies at North American and led a team at the Chance Vought Corporation that developed the Scout launch vehicle. He joined NASA in 1960 as Head of Lunar Flight Systems; in 1961 he was named Director of Lunar and Planetary Programs and became responsible for the Mariner missions to Venus and Mars in addition to Ranger, Lunar Orbiter, and Surveyor. During the next 6 years, Nicks directed programs that launched more than 30 U.S. spacecraft toward the Moon and the planets. He then became Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Science and Applications with continuing responsibilities for lunar and planetary programs, and then Acting Associate Administrator for Advanced Research and Technology. In 1970, he became Deputy Director of Langley Research Center, where he was involved in a broad range of activities, including the Viking Mars program and space shuttle technology. His contributions to lunar and planetary programs earned him many awards, including NASA medals for Distinguished Service, Outstanding Leadership, and Exceptional Service.
In 1980, Nicks returned to his first love, aeronautical engineering. He wrote the present volume at Texas A&M University, while doing research, managing an aerodynamic research facility, and directing a Space Research Center.