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


Part I : INITIATIONS : 1936-1945



The Tide Turns


[17] THE growing weight of evidence in favor of the Sunnyvale station began to have some effect. On June 22, 1939, Congressman Woodrum agreed to a rehearing of the case-a rehearing which Dr. Ames had requested a month earlier, shortly after Congress had struck the measure from the Second Deficiency Bill. The NACA, which met on June 23, was considerably heartened by this small sign of yielding by Woodrum and immediately authorized Acting Chairman Vannevar Bush to appoint a Special Survey Committee on Aeronautical Research Facilities-

to examine into the aeronautical research facilities now available in the country and their best interrelationship, and to prepare a comprehensive plan for the future extension of such facilities with especial attention to facilities of the NACA and the universities, including the training of necessary research personnel.

From the actions of the Committee at the June 23 meeting, it was clear that NACA's concepts regarding the expansion of the Nation's aeronautical research had broadened considerably and now went well beyond the addition of a single new station at Sunnyvale. Also, certain members of the Committee had felt for some time that the research talent and facilities in universities should be utilized more effectively in the Nation's aeronautical research effort.




Acting Chairman Bush immediately implemented the authorization given to him and appointed a Special Survey Committee headed by Lindbergh and including General H. H. Arnold, Admiral J. H. Towers, and Robert H. Hinckley (Chairman of CAA).1 The Special Survey Committee shortly began a tour of universities and aeronautical research laboratories in pursuit of its mission.

[18] The granting by Woodrum of one more opportunity for NACA to present its case relative to the proposed Sunnyvale station was not taken lightly With Drs. Ames and Bush either sick or unavailable, NACA decided that Dr. Charles Abbot, Vice Chairman of the NACA Executive Committee, assisted by Colonel Lindbergh and Dr. Lewis, should make the crucial presentation. Lindbergh was well known and anything he said received wide press coverage. Besides, he was completely sold on the urgent need for the new station. Dr. Lewis had, of course, just returned from his second trip to Europe with convincing evidence concerning the German threat. In addition to these active participants, John Victory and Edward Chamberlin of Lewis's staff were in the hearing room, and within the congressional halls there were sympathetic congressmen and senators at work as well as lobbyists of one kind or another including Gen. W. E. Gilmore (Ret.), former member of NACA, who according to a press report, was sent to Washington by the San Francisco Chronicle. The stage was thus set for a showdown battle.

The hearing began on July 10. The House Appropriations Subcommittee, then reviewing items in the third deficiency bill for the year, was in an economy mood even blacker than usual. NACA was asking for $10 million for the new Sunnyvale center, $4 million to be immediately available and $6 million in contract authorizations. NACA had also requested additional funds for Langley, as well as $250,000 to support research in universities.

All three NACA representatives at the hearing made very strong statements as to the need for the Sunnyvale station, and Lindbergh's statement was felt by Lewis to be particularly effective. Lindbergh spoke forcefully not only in behalf of the new station but also in support of NACA's request for funds with which to sponsor research work in scientific and educational institutions. The matter of NACA-university relations was indeed one in which Lindbergh had taken a very personal interest for the past few years.




The attitude of the Woodrum subcommittee toward the proposed new station was not readily apparent at the time of the meeting, and only when the Third Deficiency Bill was reported out of the House Appropriations Subcommittee would NACA or the general public know the fate of Sunnyvale. But John Victory sensed that the Woodrum subcommittee had reacted less favorably than expected to the arguments of Lindbergh, Lewis, and Abbot. He thought that NACA's selection of California for the station might still be a major obstacle in Woodrum's mind and that a favorable psychological effect might be produced in the subcommittee if it could be provided with some means for justifying a new vote in favor of a measure which the subcommittee had recently turned down very flatly. Perhaps the desired end could be achieved if the site were not specified in the bill but were left open [19] for later selection. This step would also please Congressman Louis Ludlow, high-ranking subcommittee member from Indiana, whose overwhelming desire was to have the new station placed in Indianapolis.

Of course a concession of the kind conceived by Victory was of somewhat dubious significance in view of NACA's stated site preference, and it would invite all kinds of political pressure and importuning from Chambers of Commerce and other city and state groups who wished to garner this plum. But the main thing was to get approval for the station; the site-selection issue could be dealt with later. Acting on this analysis, Victory slipped a note to Woodrum suggesting that the Sunnyvale site specification be deleted from the proposal and that the location of the new station be left for later decision by NACA.

The hearings ended and now came the anxious wait until the bill was reported out of committee. The answer came early in August when the third deficiency bill emerged from the Appropriations Subcommittee and was quickly passed by the House. The bill which the House had passed included an item of $10 million for a new research station. Of this amount, $1,890,000 was to be made available immediately and the remainder was a commitment to the later payment of contracts. A major change had been made in the wording of the bill. The site specification "Sunnyvale" had been replaced by the statement that the site for the new research station would be selected by the members of NACA within 30 days after passage of the bill. The urgent need for the new station was thus recognized and the time allowed for a reevaluation of the site-selection matter was happily limited to 30 days.

The bill also included $1 million for expansion of Langley Field facilities as well as an item of $109,020 for Langley to train men for the new station. Unhappily, the $250,000 that NACA had requested for the support of research in universities and other scientific institutions was deleted. Nevertheless NACA had been more fortunate than some other agencies; of the $215 million total requested in the Third Deficiency Bill, only $53 million had been appropriated.

The House action broke the logjam that had for so long held up action on the new station. The bill was passed by the Senate on August 4 and, after further consideration by Congress, it was enacted into law on August 9, 1939.2 In less than a month, Hitler would launch his ferocious attack on Poland and World War II would begin. Although many in this country thought that the United States could remain aloof from the impending conflict, the need for strengthening our defenses and our preparedness was no longer questioned. The approval given for the new NACA station was heartening evidence that our congressmen had risen worthily, if somewhat tardily, to the occasion.




The site for the new NACA station was to be selected within 30 days of the passage of the bill. Within a very few days of that event, NACA had received applications from a number of different communities which wanted the station. In all, more than 50 sites were recommended: among them were such places as Buffalo, New York; Dismal Swamp, Virginia; Indianapolis, Indiana; Menunketesuck Point, Connecticut; Chicago, Illinois; Fort Worth, Texas; Spokane, Washington; and, within California, Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento, and Sunnyvale.

Dr. Ames turned over the site-selection matter to the Lindbergh committee, but that committee was quite thoroughly occupied with its primary mission and was forced to leave the burden of the site-selection analysis to the NACA staff. Since the 30-day limitation did not allow time for hearings of applicants, as desired by Congressman Ludlow, the decision had to rest largely on specifications and qualifications which the applying communities had submitted in writing. Some additional evidence was available, however, from site inspections made by NACA members and staff.

NACA's original selection of Sunnyvale the year before had not, of course, been made by any simple arbitrary process. It was the result of a careful, objective study carried out in the absence of political pressures 3. Moreover, it took advantage of an exhaustive survey by the Navy in 1930 of 104 sites considered for the location of a rigid-airship base. The requirements for the airship base had much in common with those for the NACA station and it is not surprising that the site selected by the Navy for its base had also turned out to be the best choice for the NACA station.


Among the more important site criteria established by NACA for its new station were the following:


1. The station should if possible be on an Army or a Navy Base.
2. The site should have, or allow for, the construction of a flying field of about one mile square and should not be in an area of high air-traffic density. Moderate temperature and good flying weather through most of the year were desirable.
3. Adequate quantities (50,000 kva) of electric power should be available on site at reasonahle rates.
4. The site should be readily accessible to the aircraft industry on the West Coast. NACA wanted to be near the big western aircraft [21] companies but not so near that it would be under pressure from industry to divert its attention from basic research to routine test work.
5. The site should be near an industrial center capable of providing labor, supplies, communications and transportation facilities, and other logistic support.
6. The site should be in an area providing attractive living conditions, schools, etc., and, if possible, should be near a university of recognized standing.4


Sunnyvale satisfied these conditions very nicely and when, back in 1938, John Victory proposed Sunnyvale as the site for the new NACA station, the military grasped the idea with alacrity. Dr. Lewis, it should be mentioned, neither then nor later made any attempt to influence site selection. At the time that Victory made his proposal, the Sunnyvale base was under the Army. General Hap Arnold said to John, "You can have the whole damn Sunnyvale base!" John said he didn't want it all just 50 acres or so. Arnold replied, "Oh! You want the Army to mow the grass for you!" Later, when the threat of war had grown darker, General Arnold was probably glad that NACA had not: taken seriously the offer he had made in jest.

Although NACA had earlier selected Sunnyvale as the site for its proposed new station, it nevertheless made a fair review of the many sites that were suggested both prior to and following the passage of the Third Deficiency Bill. It is not surprising, however, that the answer came out the same: Sunnyvale. A West Coast location had obviously been favored. In addition to Sunnyvale, such sites as San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Ana, and Sacramento had received very serious consideration. The staff work on site selection was presented at a meeting of the Committee on September 22. Dr. Ames was too ill to attend but, before the meeting was over, the assembled members, with little argument, agreed that Sunnyvale was to be the site for the new NACA station. An official announcement of the selection was made at 11 a.m. that day.5




With his health failing, Dr. Ames could no longer fulfill his duties as a member of NACA. He submitted his resignation on October 7.6 It was a time of sorrow for the members of NACA because he was loved and respected by them all. A charter member of NACA appointed by President Wilson, he had worked with great zeal and effectiveness, and without pay, for 25 years. For more than 20 years, Dr. Ames had served either as Chairman of NACA or as Chairman of its Executive Committee. He was a man of [22] the highest integrity, moral fortitude, and ability. On retirement, Dr. Ames received attestations of respect and appreciation from many people, including President Roosevelt 7 and the members of the Committee.

Dr. Vannevar Bush was chosen to succeed Dr. Ames as Chairman of NACA8.




At a meeting of NACA on October 19, the Special Committee on Aeronautical Research Facilities (Lindbergh committee) reported on the results of its mission activities. Its principal finding was "that there is a serious lack of engine research facilities in the United States, and that it is of the utmost importance for the development of aviation in general, and for our defense program in particular, to take immediate steps to remedy this deficiency."9

The weakness in NACA's research program pointed out by the Lindbergh committee had been recognized even earlier and the main Committee (NACA) was unanimous in feeling that prompt action should be taken. Accordingly, Dr. Bush immediately appointed a Special Committee on New Engine Research Facilities headed by Dr. George J. Mead.10 This committee, which was instructed to make recommendations as to the scope of the proposed new engine research laboratory, submitted its report to NACA on February 7, 1940. The report recommended, among other things, that the new engine research laboratory be built in a place readily accessible to the manufacturers of aircraft engines. Congress was asked for funds for the new engine laboratory and with little ado they were authorized on June 26, 1940. Cleveland was later selected as the site.

The selling job in the case of the engine laboratory was relatively easy. No specific site had been mentioned when the proposal was made to Congress; and, in any case, it was obvious that the new laboratory would have to be in the East since the engine companies were located there. More importantly the developing war situation in Europe spoke convincingly of the need for the proposed engine research laboratory.

For 25 years Langley had been NACA's only laboratory and then, in the course of a year, two more were authorized. A great surge of effort by NACA would be required to get the new laboratories underway. Both had been needed for years and, with war clouds building up, their construction was pursued with all speed. Another sign of the times was that the Army changed its mind about giving NACA more space at Langley Field; thus a further increase in the Committee's capabilities through an expansion of the Langley laboratory was made possible.


1 Letter, Dr. Vannevar Bush, Chairman Executive Committee NACA , to Col. Charles A Lindbergh, Air Corps, June 30. 1934

2 NACA 25th Annual Report 1939, p. 1.

3 The report of the Special Committee on Future Research Facilities, relative to site selection, was transmitted in a letter dated Dec. 21, 1938, to the special committee chairman, Rear Adm. Arthur B. Cook, from two of its members- General Arnold and Dr. Lewis. This report indicated that Sunnyvale had been selected from a group of runner-up sites which included Mather Field, near Sacramento; March Field, near Los Angeles; the Ordnance Depot at Ogden, Utah; and Lowry Field, Denver. The second choice, Ogden, was felt to be less vulnerable to air attack than the first choice, Sunnyvale, but poorer because of climate and distance from the aircraft industry.

4 Report of Special Committee on Future Research Facilities, Dec. 30, 1938. app. D.

5 NACA memo for the press, Sept. 22, 1939, 11 a.m.

6 Letter, Dr. Joseph S. Ames to President Roosevelt, Oct. 7, 1939.

7 Letter, President Roosevelt to Dr. Ames, Oct.10, 1939.

8 By action of NACA at its meeting on Oct. 19, 1939.

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

10 NACA 25th Annual Report 1939, p. 3.