SP-4302 Adventures in Research: A History of Ames Research Center 1940-1965


Part I : INITIATIONS : 1936-1945



Pressures for Expansion of Research


[11] THERE was no question that NACA took the report of its Special Committee seriously. It was immediately approved and, despite yearend holidays, was passed on within 10 days to the President and the Bureau of the Budget for executive action. In submitting the report to the President and the Bureau of the Budget, NACA made one addition to the recommendations of the Special Committee: $500,000 was requested for special research investigations in educational and scientific institutions on problems supplementary to the research programs of the Government. The purpose of this addition was to allow NACA to utilize more fully the research talent and facilities existing in universities and other scientific institutions.

Dr. Ames closed his letter of transmittal to the President with the paragraph, "In view of the gravity of the world situation and of the vital relation of scientific research to the military effectiveness of aircraft, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics is unanimous in strongly recommending the earliest possible execution of the program.''1

President Roosevelt and his Bureau of the Budget acted on the recommendation with commendable speed and, on February 3, 1939, transmitted the request to the Congress for incorporation in the second deficiency bill. The only significant change which the Bureau of the Budget made in NACA's request was to reduce the amount specified for the new research center from $11 to $10 million.2




In March, the second deficiency bill came up for consideration by a House Appropriations Subcommittee headed by Congressman Clifton A. Woodrum of Virginia, who had generally acted favorably on NACA requests to expand Langley facilities. His actions on this occasion were consistent.

[12] His subcommittee approved the funds requested for Langley and also the funds required to provide more effective coordination of aeronautical research in industry and the universities. But the funds requested for the new research center at Sunnyvale, California, as well as the $500,000 for research in educational and scientific institutions, were denied. Woodrum was reported, in the newspapers of the day, to have said that pending further study the Government's present facilities at Langley Field ought to be sufficient.

The House action was a severe blow to those who felt the Nation's safety was at stake. Of course it was also a blow to Californians who wanted the proposed research center established in their locality. On March 23, the day after the House subcommittee had acted, General Arnold and Admiral Cook jointly addressed a letter to Dr. Ames urging him to take immediate steps to have the deleted item of the Sunnyvale center reinstated in the second deficiency bill by the Senate. They pointed out that-


(1) The Army and Navy are dependent upon NACA for fundamental scientific data which make possible the improved performance of aircraft.
(2) The Army and Navy will spend about $225 million for aircraft for the coming year alone and such aircraft would not be worth all they cost: unless our aircraft are at least equal in performance to the best produced abroad. America does not want second-best aircraft.
(3) It is absolutely impossible to expand adequately at Langley Field as the Army cannot provide more room without impairing the military efficiency of its own operations.
(4) A second major research station is necessary and, to be of maximum value to the Army and Navy, should be on the West Coast -near the aircraft factories.
(5) The Sunnyvale research project is emergency in character and of vital importance to the success of our whole program of strengthening the air defense of the United States.3


But Dr. Ames was not well. He was 75 years old and illness of one kind or another had sapped his strength. Yet from his sickbed he penned an eloquent letter to Congressman Woodrum on May 23 asking for reconsideration of the Sunnyvale station. He not only transmitted a copy of the letter prepared by Admiral Cook and General Arnold but also reviewed in general and in detail the urgent need for the new research facility. In the course of his letter he brought in a personal note:

For nearly twenty years I have been appearing before the Appropri-[13] ations Committee. I have supported what at times appeared to be bold plans for development of research facilities in the United States. I have never supported a padded or extravagant estimate. I have never supported a project that Congress refused to approve....
Now, through impairment of my health, I am nearing the end of my active career. I have served as a member of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics for nearly twenty-five years without compensation... My compensation has been the tremendous satisfaction that has come to me from the realization that the work of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics has been successful over a long period of years, enabling American manufacturers and designers to develop aircraft, military and commercial, superior in performance, efficiency, and safety to those produced by other nations. Now I regret to say the picture has changed. I still, however, have faith in our ability, with your support and the support of Congress, to regain for America the leadership in scientific knowledge which will enable our designers and manufacturers again to produce superior aircraft.4


Woodrum could hardly have helped being moved by Dr. Ames' touching and persuasive letter but if he was he concealed his emotions very well.

His reply, though not unkind, was brief, perfunctory, and noncommittal.5




Dr. Vannevar Bush, then a member of NACA, was acting in behalf of the ailing Dr. Ames when he sought and, in early April, was granted a hearing by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee. He was accompanied to the Senate chambers by John Victory and others. The purpose of their mission -to seek a restoration of the Sunnyvale item in the second deficiency bill- was known in advance to the Senate subcommittee. The senators were generally unsympathetic toward the mission of the NACA representatives and were, it appeared to Victory, prepared to freeze out Dr. Bush by any means at their command, including sheer bluff and rudeness. Dr. Bush asked for five minutes to present his case, but the subcommittee members, by their interruptions, interjections, and diversions, denied him this privilege. Dr. Bush was not the man to accept this kind of treatment from anyone, even senators. According to Victory, he beat on the table and forcefully asserted his claim to speak. And to this show of spirit the senators yielded, but Dr. Bush's remarks were to no avail; the subcommittee had obviously made up its mind ahead of time.6

[14] Things looked black indeed at this point, and some in NACA were about ready to give up the struggle, but not John Victory. No tyro in Washington politics, Victory thought he knew a way to get the Sunnyvale project back into the deficiency bill. John Victory was a born fighter thoroughly devoted to NACA, and he had an armorplate that was never dented by the arrows of misfortune. In looking out for the welfare of NACA and its staff, he never took "no" for an answer, never was cowed by pomp or power, and never let false modesty prevent him from accomplishing his mission. He fought with a no-holds-barred vigor that sometimes embarrassed his colleagues, particularly Dr. Lewis who, though a more sensitive individual, was equally effective in his own, but different, way. A formidable opponent, John Victory was a good man to have on one's side.




Victory knew that, despite the inaction of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, it was possible to get the Sunnyvale project reintroduced into the deficiency bill at the time the bill was brought up before the whole Senate. All it took was to get one of his senatorial friends who sympathized with NACA's needs (and there were many such, including Senator Hiram Johnson of California) to bring the matter up for a vote at the proper time. Once the matter had been properly presented to the whole Senate, Victory felt sure it would be approved. Unlike the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, which were loaded with easterners and dominated by Virginians, the Senate as a whole represented all the States and thus might be expected to exercise a more detached judgment in the matter.

Victory was right. He prevailed on a friendly senator to introduce the subject and on April 14 the Senate restored the Sunnyvale research center to the Deficiency Bill, appropriating $4 million to get the laboratory started.




Although hope was thus restored, Victory knew that NACA was a long way from winning its case, for when the House and Senate disagree on an appropriations item, the matter is referred for settlement of differences to a joint appropriations committee of the House and Senate. Thus the Sunnyvale station matter would be reconsidered by the same people who had turned it down in the first place. But since the whole Senate had approved it, would the senators on the joint committee turn it down again? Perhaps they would not. This was the slim hope to which John Victory and others in NACA clung. The hope was in vain: the joint committee, meeting on April 26, struck the item from the bill. The Second Deficiency Bill as passed provided $2,140,000 for an expansion of Langley, but nothing for the new Sunnyvale laboratory.

[15] The need for the new center had been very well established. Whence, then, came the opposition? Virginia's Congressman Clifton Woodrum and Senator Carter Glass, chairmen, respectively, of the House Appropriations Subcommittee and the main Senate Appropriations Committee, apparently felt that it would diminish the importance and restrict the growth of the NACA laboratory at Langley Field, Va. Evidence also existed of an east-west factionalism of a more general character.7 There was a feeling that some Eastern congressmen and senators were not happy about having NACA, born and raised, so to speak, in the East, extend its operations to the West Coast. And there was also a rather solid impression in some NACA circles that at least one eastern aircraft manufacturer had prevailed upon his congressman to block this measure which would give aid to his competitors on the West Coast. The western aircraft industry had grown rather rapidly and at this time accounted for something like 60 percent of the airplane-manufacturing business. This fact, of course, was an important reason for building the Sunnyvale station. In view of the actions of Congress, NACA was now painfully aware that it had made a strategic error in the presentation of its request for the new station. The error lay in specifying the location of the station in the original proposal, a bit of political naivete for which John Victory accepted the blame.




While Congress was busy appropriating funds for new airplanes and denying funds for an expansion of aeronautical research, the world situation was growing worse. In April, Italy seized Albania and in May, Germany and Italy formed an alliance-their famous Axis. The results of Germany's aeronautical research efforts were also appearing. Germany established two world speed records in April with its new Messerschmitt and Heinkel airplanes. And in June the growing importance of commercial aviation was emphasized by Pan American's inauguration of transatlantic passenger service. Transpacific service had been established even earlier (1936).

Early in 1939 Dr. George Lewis was honored by being elected president of the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences and a little later was extended the further honor of being asked to deliver the Wilbur Wright Lecture before the Royal Aeronautical Society in London. He sailed for Europe on May 17 and, after delivering the lecture on May 25, spent several weeks visiting aeronautical research and development institutions in England, France, and Germany. In Germany, he visited Berlin (Adlershof), Goettingen, and the Heinkel plant in Oranienburg.

[16] What Lewis saw during his European visit confirmed the impression he had gained in 1936 about the buildup of German aeronautical research and production facilities. He was much impressed by what he saw and was also surprised by the supreme confidence of the Germans in the strength and destiny of the Third Reich. Although Lewis represented a country which Germany recognized as a strong potential enemy, the Germans appeared perfectly willing, if not eager, to show him their latest aeronautical developments, particularly their new aeronautical research facilities. Far from concealing anything, they seemed to gloat over their accomplishments in a manner of complete self-assurance, although possibly with the intent of discouraging U.S. intervention in Germany's aggressive activities. Dr. Lewis had opportunities to ask several of the German scientists with whom he had developed some acquaintance what they thought about the prospects of war. The answer he got, also very frank, was that war would come "before the snow flies this fall."8

Returning on the airship Hindenburg from his European trip, Lewis carried a grave message to his Government. Would they heed it? The justification for a major expansion of the country's aeronautical research was clearly growing, and many people in this country were not prepared to allow the needed expansion to be crippled or killed by narrow factionalism. When the joint House-Senate conference committee deleted the Sunnyvale station from the Second Deficiency Bill, a great hue and cry arose. Some of the cries were of course those of Californians, particularly Senator Hiram Johnson and Congressman Jack Anderson; but criticism of the congressional action also came from eastern sources. The New York Times had earlier editorialized about the gravity of the mistake the Congress would make if it did not restore the funds for Sunnyvale, and other eastern newspapers spoke in favor of the station. The Army and the Navy were, of course, backing it to the hilt, as was the Civil Aeronautics Authority. Another strong proponent who spoke far and wide in favor of the Sunnyvale station was Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh, an important national figure and, at that time, a member of NACA. He also, during a trip to Europe, had been dazzled by German aeronautical developments. How long could Congress resist these pressures?


1 Letter, Dr. Joseph S. Ames, Chairman NACA, to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jan. 10, 1939.

2 NACA 25th Annual Report 1939, p. 38.

3 Letter, Rear Adm. Arthur B. Cook USN, Chief Bureau of Aeronautics, and Maj. Gen. Henry H. Arnold USA, Chief of Air Corps, to Dr. Joseph S. Ames, Chairman NACA, Mar. 23, 1939

4 Letter, Dr. Joseph S. Ames, Chairman NACA, to the Honorable Clifton A. Woodrum, Chairman House Appropriations Subcommittee, May 23, 1939.

5 Letter, Woodrum to Ames, Mar. 29, 1939. Contained three sentences, two of which dealt with the subject matter of Ames' four-page letter.

6 Victory's impressions appear to be supported by congressional records-U.S. Congress, senate, Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, Second Deficiency ,Appropriation Bill for 1939, Hearings on H.R. 5219, 76th Cong., 1st sess., Wednesday, Apr. 5, 1939, pp. 75-94. Of the 10 members of the subcommittee present, seven were from the East.

7 Senate Hearings (see footnote 6). Senator McCarran of Nevada, the only member of the Senate subcommittee who seemed to favor the west coast laboratory, implied that the eastern senators were guilty of "sectionalism" (geographic factionalism).

8 G. W. Lewis: "Report on Trip to Germany and Russia September-October 1936." The statements about German supreme confidence and war predictions represent recollections by R. G. Robinson and J. F. Victory of what Lewis told them on his return from Germany.