SP-4304 SEARCHING THE HORIZON: A History of Ames Research Center, 1940-1976

 

3

THE LEAN YEARS, 1952-1957

 

[51] Until 1958, budget limits necessitated careful and frustrating choices both at Ames and in the NACA as a whole. Research alternatives, facility utilization, and priorities of time and financing had to be weighed and compromises effected. Though the government had made a commitment to sponsor and coordinate scientific research, appropriations were not unlimited and salaries of civil-servant researchers were not competitive with industry. The financial realities encouraged a conservative approach to planning on the part of the NACA. At the same time, however, the budgeting process for the individual laboratories remained simple enough to make it easy to reallocate funds between projects.

By the early 1950s facilities at Ames had increased substantially, but the laboratory remained small enough to be relatively free of bureaucratic complexity. Operational limitations resulted primarily from an overload of obligations compared to personnel strength. This no doubt hampered the staff in conducting Ames-originated research. Even more, it delayed developmental tests requested by the aircraft companies. John Dusterberry, who had come to Ames in 1943 with a degree in electrical engineering, remembered the early 1950s as a period of "doldrums" for those involved in the design of new facilities. "Nobody seemed to have any money to do anything, and as a result, I think people . . . lost motivation and spirit to do things."1

Lack of money meant the inability to hire the manpower needed to operate the wind tunnels at maximum use. As Harry Goett explained it,

 

You spent men and time.... Washington said, "Now look, Smitty, we'll give you 1500 people for next year; now how many people will it take you to run your wind tunnels? " Then [De France] would come back and talk to Ferrill Nickle, the budget officer, and they'd make the first cuts, and then they'd call in Harvey Allen and myself, the major contenders. Harv had more facilities planned and would get more people, and I'd fight.2

 

[52] Lack of "tunnel time" often created a backup of work and potential tension with industry. That this tension seldom developed is noteworthy. Harvey Allen, head of the high-speed division, put the problem clearly to NACA headquarters when describing a proposal made by North American Aviation. Allen supported the proposed research, but admitted: "Of course the addition of the investigation of this missile to the 1- by 3-foot tunnel program will further overload this facility. This wind tunnel section is not up to full complement at present so that only single-shift operation is possible, hence there is no hope of speeding up the tunnel program unless the staff can be brought up to that commensurate with two-shift operation."3 Allen added that the company had volunteered its own employees to build and maintain the model during testing.

The same staffing problem was mentioned by De France to a visiting congressman over a year later. In a typically polished way, De France explained that the situation at Ames was common throughout government-sponsored research.

 

I pointed out to him that we have in operation at present and will have, in the additional equipment to be constructed under the Unitary Plan, the best facilities for high-speed research that can be found any place in the world. I explained, however, that it was difficult to operate these facilities to their full capacity with the manpower made available to us, and that if we needed anything, it was a greater appropriation for personnel. Congressman Crawford asked if the industry was proselyting our trained technicians. I told him that they did to a certain extent and cited one case which had occurred within the past week in which a GS-14 of the Laboratory had been offered a position at $15,000 a year with the Northrop Aircraft Company to take charge of their guided missile work. I told him that we had had other similar cases but that in most instances, because of the interest of the men in the work of the Laboratory, we were able to keep them from taking positions with the industry.4

 

The attraction of the research at Ames was a very real advantage in keeping the staff surprisingly stable. "At the beginning," as one veteran put it, "Ames had a little edge in salary, but by 1950-1952, a person had to ask himself if it was worth 25% in salary."5

Part of Ames's success in keeping researchers lay in the continuing postwar approbation enjoyed by aeronautics. Aeronautical research had reached enviable stature during World War II. Its worth was firmly established in the public mind, and the very obvious advantage of continuous, [53] conscientious research had endowed the aeronautical laboratories with a certain prestige. During the supersonic decade that followed the war, it was easy to be excited by the possibilities for continuing progress and discovery. Harry Goett described the 1950s as a "continuing technological revolution," as aeronautics moved to the problems of transonic and supersonic flight and on to a new challenge-automatic control of aircraft. Challenge and competition kept Ames full of vitality.

 

[Langley was] doing somewhat the same kind of stuff. That kept us on our toes. We'd go back and meet not only our counterparts at Langley, but the Air Force people, and the people from industry. We would present to these outsiders our own programs, and [it was] rewarding . . . to find that [we weren't] in a vacuum, that there [was an] outside use for our projects.
 
[We'd get] 50% of the top people in the field around a table talking-it was very stimulating! [We'd] take back the list, circulate it [and develop] a program that was going to be helpful to them... 6

 

For those actively involved in the research process, belief in the NACA as a nonpartisan pursuer of research excellence and a crucial troubleshooter for the aircraft industry evidently kept many of the Ames staff from being tempted by higher salaries offered by private companies.

This enthusiasm was perhaps not surprising among the research staff itself, but it also seems to have been a part of the auxiliary services at Ames, from the administrative staff to the clerical workers. A partial explanation is surely found in the smallness of the original group that established the laboratory. Because of the academic ties among Ames personnel, and the imported camaraderie contributed by the people from Langley, the initial atmosphere of high motivation in an extended-family context seems to have continued as Ames grew. By example, older employees initiated new personnel into high levels of job-involvement. Equally important, however, was the habit of strict discipline set by De France. Because all knew De France would not tolerate negligence or sloppiness, professionalism at all levels was high. Pride in one's work was a real part of the Ames personality. As one employee put it, "We knew we'd hear about it from De France himself if our work wasn't satisfactory. So we learned to pay attention. And we were proud of the fact that we were required to meet [his] standards."7

 

ORGANIZATIONAL CHANGES

 

Another factor in the spirit of the institution in the early 1950s was the relative simplicity with which Ames was organized and the lack of bureau-[54] cracy with which it ran. In 1947 De France's title changed from engineer-in-charge to director. The change was symbolic, connoting the finished laboratory rather than a project under construction. In one sense this was certainly true. Ames was one of the most versatile aeronautical research facilities in the world, and it had settled into the research routine for which it had been designed. But it is also true that Ames was far from finished. A backward look at the organization of the laboratory in the early 1950s reveals a model of simplicity that appears almost unbelievable today.

From the earliest days at Ames, De France's right-hand man had been Jack Parsons, who initially was in charge of construction. The two men worked well together, and De France moved Parsons into a variety of jobs with confidence that he could manage a number of major functions simultaneously. During the time Parsons was still head of the construction division in the mid-1940s, he was also head of the Full-Scale and Flight Research Division, supervising all work done in the busy 40- by 80-foot tunnel. In Parsons De France had an informal assistant who kept him informed in a number of realms. Reporting daily to De France, Parsons served as liaison between the director and the rest of the laboratory. Parsons was, by all accounts, an inspiration in dedication, hard work, and quiet competence. The devotion told on his health, however. In 1947, after a leave of absence because of sickness, De France made him an assistant to the director, with Carlton Bioletti, another Langley transferee, in a parallel position. These two men relieved De France of some of the burden of research supervision; but the positions represented, in a sense, the beginnings of insulation between the director and his laboratory. The situation was mitigated by the strong hand with which De France governed the laboratory, which made his constant involvement with the daily issues and problems a certainty.

In 1949 Parsons became responsible for coordination of the Unitary Plan wind tunnels that the NACA expected to build at Ames, Langley, and Lewis. This position took him out of the post of assistant to the director, but in 1952 De France appointed him associate director. For the rest of his career at Ames, Parsons was second in command, continuing to facilitate communications between research and administration within the laboratory. He remained the coordinator of wind-tunnel construction under the Unitary Plan until 1956 when those facilities were completed.8

In 1950 Carlton Bioletti's title of assistant to the director evolved into that of assistant director. Russell Robinson was also appointed to a parallel position. Robinson, who had broken ground for the first construction at Ames in 1939, had been in a technical management position at the NACA's Washington office since 1940. His transfer to Ames in 1950 fulfilled a promise made him during the war by George Lewis, the NACA's director of aeronautical research. "Exciting things were happening out there and I wanted to be in on them," said Robinson, "to be involved with research and [55] research people more directly."9 Robinson was not only rejoining old Langley colleagues, but also reestablishing relationships as a Stanford alumnus. His return illustrated the network of personal and professional ties that was so common among the Ames staff.

As assistant directors, Bioletti and Robinson managed current and projected research at the laboratory. Both men played a crucial role in considering the advantages and disadvantages of particular research programs, consulting with the research divisions and NACA headquarters as to the feasibility of various projects. In this way De France was able to make decisions for the laboratory after Robinson and Bioletti had studied the options and presented their recommendations. Supposedly, a distinction was made between planning and operations in the two posts, but in reality the distinction was not observed. As Robinson recalled, it would have been difficult to draw a clear dividing line between the jobs. It was equally unclear whether the two positions were line or staff appointments, and it would seem that they were a little of both, and an effective liaison between line and staff.10 Robinson had the additional task of reviewing and editing much of the published material emanating from Ames research, an important detail De France felt needed constant attention.

Thus the assistant directors, and after 1952 the associate director, provided high-level assessment and filtering of information for the director. As buffers, they made it possible for De France to avoid becoming bogged down in much of the day-to-day detail, while at the same time they provided the information he needed to make informed decisions.

When Ames was formed, Donald Wood had the all-inclusive title of director of research. By 1943, however, the volume of research and its differentiation made two research divisions desirable: the Theoretical and Applied Research Division under Wood and the Full-Scale and Flight Research Division under Parsons. Wood's early responsibilities as director of all research had probably been less complicated than his later duties as division chief because of the new laboratory's limitations. As chief of the Theoretical and Applied Research Division in 1950, Wood was responsible for the 7- by 10-foot tunnels, the 12-foot tunnel, the 16-foot tunnel, and the Theoretical Aerodynamics Section. In 1943 that division represented the main thrust of Ames's planned specialty-high-speed research and theoretical aerodynamics. The focus of activities within the divisions was to change over the years, as was their proportional importance in terms of the laboratory's total research.

During the war the Full-Scale and Flight Research Division had concentrated on the deicing problem and on solutions to various performance problems in fighter aircraft. In addition to that, the division was responsible for planning the 40- by 30-foot tunnel and the full-scale research that it would make possible. The division dealt with the most crucial demands that were [56] laid on Ames -problems in actual aircraft operations. The late 1940s saw significant work on wing research, as well as the load and stability studies and flight-testing of the F-86. In the 1950s, however, low-speed research and the Full-Scale and Flight Research Division lost that preeminent position. Perhaps it was not unusual that this occurred, since Ames, despite its capacity for full-scale research, had been originally conceived as more of a high-speed laboratory. In high-speed aeronautics, with theories still being hammered out, applications to structures had not yet become as important as in low-speed aeronautics. Many thought, as Hugh Dryden did, that Ames was "a little more purely scientific.... Langley aerodynamic studies were always done with an eye to the structural problems in mind, whereas Ames took it as a purely aerodynamic problem . . . and let other people worry about the structures."11

Harry Goett, who succeeded Jack Parsons as chief of the division, was not about to let the Full-Scale and Flight Research Division wither on the vine. He organized flight engineering, flight operation, flight research, and the 40- by 80-foot tunnel into interlocking sections. Goett's abrupt style contrasted greatly with that of Harvey Allen, yet Goett too is remembered for his ability to keep his sections running smoothly while also encouraging the spontaneity that must be a part of successful research. Like Allen, Goett had come from Langley, where he had worked under De France.

The third research division was formed in 1945: the High-Speed Research Division under Allen. By 1950 the division, with six transonic or supersonic wind tunnels, could claim the most exciting frontiers of research for its own. This division had grown out of the Theoretical Aerodynamics section of Wood's division. As high-speed flight moved from theory to actuality and the possibilities for experimental testing expanded, the need to redefine the field and organize its facilities had resulted in the creation of the new division. The breakthroughs that made transonic flight possible-the jet engine and the swept wing rapidly elevated the division to a position of prominence in the laboratory. In addition, of course, the personality of Harvey Allen kept the sections under his control lively. The division included sections organized around the 1- by 3-foot supersonic tunnels, the 1- by 3.5-foot transonic tunnel, the 6- by 6-foot supersonic tunnel, the 10- by 14-inch hypersonic tunnel, and the supersonic free-flight tunnel.

Other divisions provided both administrative services and auxiliary expertise to keep the research facilities running smoothly. The available records, including some unofficial organization charts, suggest that the administrative division included clerical, financial, personnel, purchase, warehouse, and library sections. A construction division handled the continuing building, a technical services division ran the mechanics shops and serviced [57] aircraft, and the research instrumentation and engineering services division dealt with engineering design, instrumentation development, photography, electronics' and illustrations for reports and publications.12

Although the administrative division had a financial section, the budget officer for Ames was not a part of this section. Instead, the financial section supported the budget officer, who reported directly to De France. As one Ames employee has described it, Ferrill Nickle, the budget officer, kept track of Ames's financial standing for the year by the "scratchpad" method At any time, De France could find out exactly how much money the laboratory had left for the year and could reallocate money originally earmarked for a project that was proving less expensive than expected. Decisions in the financial management of the laboratory, once the funding had been approved for the year, were very much the director's, and little bureaucracy intervened between Ames and the NACA Washington office. It was, indeed, a period when the main office trusted their directors and left many major decisions in their hands.13 As one scholar observed, "The laboratory director [had] almost complete freedom in deciding how the job [would] be done and when it [would] be done."14

The organization at Ames was certainly clear enough to those within the laboratory at the time. Difficulties arose, however, in outside assessment of organization and decision-making processes. In 1950 a student submitted a major paper to the Stanford Business School on management and procedural practices in the NACA.15 For convenience he concentrated much of his study on Ames. When he attempted to obtain organizational charts from the Washington office of the NACA, he found that none existed, though he was referred to several "unofficial" organizational charts constructed by other sources. The same situation existed at Ames, and the scholar was forced to draw his own diagram of the lines of authority there. Greatly bothered by the lack, he recommended that the situation be immediately remedied and charts drawn up, both at the laboratory level and in the head office.

The reason for no published charts seems to lie primarily in the administrative philosophy of George Lewis, the NACA's director of aeronautical research from 1924 to 1947. According to a colleague, Lewis disliked organizational charts because he did not wish to encourage contacts from the Outside directly with organizational subdivisions or specialists. Lewis preferred to be the sole route by which the NACA could be approached. He wanted to remain aware of all aspects of NACA concerns, and as he saw it, organization charts unnecessarily complicated matters. 16 Though Lewis retired in 1947, his style of management, in this regard at least, was passed on to the laboratories and outlasted his tenure.

 

[58] ADMINISTRATIVE METHODS

 

Ames almost certainly inherited Lewis's disdain for organizational formality through De France, who had worked almost his entire career under Lewis. As the laboratory grew in size and complexity, De France's solution was to create the posts of assistants to the director, occupied originally by Bioletti and Parsons, and later the position of associate director. In delegating responsibility, however, De France did not relinquish final authority for mayor decisions, nor did he create a chain of command that would hinder his going directly to the divisions or sections and bypassing his immediate subordinates. In this way De France, like Lewis in Washington, was able to maintain informed control even after the laboratory's activities became far more diverse. The lack of clearly defined organizational functions and lines of command, at least at certain levels, was probably quite conscious on the part of De France.17 It did not bother those on the staff nearly so much as it did an outsider attempting to analyze the workings of Ames. As the Stanford scholar rather plaintively noted,

 
The exact status of the assistants to the Director is not clear to me.... the organizational structure appears to be highly unorthodox. I have had the distinction between the duties of these positions explained to me at some length, yet this distinction is still not clear to me. There are borderline cases wherein it is difficult for me to judge which position has the responsibility.18

 

But lack of clear organizational definition did not hamper the efficiency of the laboratory,19 as the scholar admitted: "it is not readily apparent that the lack of organization charts had hindered managerial relations."20 On the section and division levels, one obviously took problems to one's immediate superior, who himself might suggest a higher-level consultation. At times, one suspects, the relative smallness and informality of Ames would find issues being hashed out among various echelons of staff and line, a fine disregard for hierarchy being displayed.

By contemporary lights, Ames in the early 1950s appears to have been almost haphazardly organized and run. The outward appearances, however, are deceiving, for the laboratory had the advantage of a strong and conscientious director whose control was both constant and informed. Formal organization and the checks and balances of bureaucracy were less needed because of De France's reputation as an uncompromisingly honest, hardworking, and sensible manager and because the times themselves were simpler. The staff fluctuated between 1200 and 1350 in 1950-1955. By 1957 it had reached approximately 1450, but the gradual increase seems to [59] have diluted staff familiarity only slightly. Operating costs for the laboratory climbed gradually also, from approximately $3 million in 1945 to $10 million in 1955.21 Harry Goett recalled an episode from the postwar period that illustrates De France's management philosophy. Its similarity to Lewis's attitude toward organization charts is striking:

The NACA had a pretty good reputation for managing its money, so the [Office of Management and Budget] sent some men out here to find out how we [worked]. One of them came to see me, and I [explained] how decisions were made to undertake research.... Decisions obviously involved cost decisions, but the decision to do a test in the 7 X 10 or the 40 X 80 was made on the basis of which tunnel you decided better fit the problem, not on the money it would cost. When De France found out I'd told the OMB man all this he hit the ceiling: "You told them how we work! I'm never going to let you talk to the budget people again!" Boy, he was mad!22

Another factor making for relatively simple, informal operations was constant discussion and feedback among all levels of employees. Though difficult to document, the low turnover rate of the staff and the various long-standing relationships deriving from old Langley employment, university experiences, and friendships built through the early years at Ames all contributed to the laboratory's ability to function with a minimum of organizational formality and bureaucracy. It was a joke among Ames employees that "once at Ames, always at Ames."23

The flexibility displayed in the administration of Ames is interesting for several reasons. First, while the casual attitude regarding bureaucracy and formality dated from the original wartime context in which the laboratory was established, it continued after the war. Second, this "family" attitude toward administration seems to have been as much a product of De France's personality and management philosophy as it was a result of Ames's early years. Last, it must be admitted that even for 1950, when rigid chains of Command, bureaucracy, and paralyzing paperwork were not so developed as today, Ames was atypical. The Stanford scholar was hard pressed to contain his disbelief at the lack of clearly defined administrative channels and regularized procedures he discovered at Ames.

The De France method of administration worked extremely well during its time Perhaps, too, the nature of research contributed to the success of the system. The thought processes upon which inspired research depend need a certain leeway and protection from rigid definition and pigeonholing. To escape losing impetus in a forest of nonessential detail, a researcher needs to be free to discuss, consult, and make decisions relatively easily and [60] quickly. This was possible at Ames partially because of the lack of black-and-white distinctions and job definitions, and because of the pervasiveness of informal discussion.

 

GENERATING RESEARCH

 

In the early 1950s aeronautics enjoyed high status as a field of research. Visible advances were being made all the time, and there was a general awareness of the research frontier. Aeronautics was a field of endeavor one could believe in - it was free of the moral ambiguities that attached to most military-connected research. The technology of the ever-faster-and-higher airplane was seen as, and for the most part was, a "clean" technology, so it was easy to remain enthusiastic about one's work. The happy climate at Ames in the early 1950s, therefore, must be seen not only in terms of personnel and management, but also in the context of the nature of its research and the prevailing atmosphere of the time.

To analyze life at Ames, one must consider how research projects originated and were accomplished. The means by which Ames became involved in a research effort varied as widely as the projects themselves. An outstanding characteristic, however, was a flexibility that made it possible for research to originate from any of a number of sources. Only sometimes did work derive from a dictum of the Washington office. Just as frequently Ames itself initiated the process by which a research authorization was eventually issued. An idea that evolved into an extensive investigation might begin with a single engineer or a group discussing a persistent problem. Conversely, the suggestion for a specific investigation might come from one of the special subcommittees of the NACA, to be assigned to a laboratory depending upon work under way there at the time or upon areas of specialty. Between these two extremes was a spectrum of possible origins for projects, some within the laboratory itself, some outside.

The investigations undertaken by Ames, and indeed by most aeronautical laboratories, fell into two broad categories. The NACA and its facilities were primarily designed for basic research in aeronautics; that is to say, the pursuit of answers to broad questions within the discipline. Examples of this type of research were the various efforts to minimize the compressibility effects of transonic flight and research into the characteristics of different wing shapes. Basic research might also deal with problems of experimentation itself, like the work at Langley that led to the slotted-throat solution to transonic choking. A research idea along broad lines such as these might originate anywhere. After conceptualization and discussion at various levels, the Washington office issued a research authorization, which was formal [61] approval for work to begin.24 Sometimes the actual work began before formal approval was issued. This had been true, for example, in the case of the deicing work done at Ames by L. A. Rodert and his flight research section; Rodert simply continued, before the research authorization came through, work he had started while at Langley (p. 20).

Sometimes research elsewhere that had come to the attention of a NACA researcher provoked a memorandum or proposal for further investigation. This was true in the case of a very long-lived research authorization that a young Langley engineer originated in 1926.25 Having read a NACA technical memorandum on boundary-layer-control research being done in Germany, he proposed to the engineer-in-charge at Langley that the various methods for delaying boundary-layer turbulence be investigated further. The idea moved from Langley to the Washington office, where George Lewis, director of aeronautical research, wrote a research authorization.

Other projects grew out of barriers encountered by research. The ballistics work undertaken by Ames in the immediate postwar period was a response to the inherent limitations of wind-tunnel research at transonic speeds. It was one of the logical directions to proceed, at least until the choking problem in the tunnels could be solved.

The various technical subcommittees of the NACA were sources for research directives. Either through their own expertise or through the concern of an outside interest-industry or the military-the committees identified areas where work was needed, and the appropriate laboratory was consulted and eventually detailed to handle the research. The technical committees and subcommittees served both as sources for research ideas and as reference authorities when proposals were advanced by one of the laboratories.

Occasionally a new project grew out of meetings of the interlaboratory panels. Beginning in 1944 and continuing into the 1950s, both the High-Speed Panel and the Research Airplane Projects Panel met at one or another of the laboratories to exchange ideas. Often research was informally apportioned by the researchers themselves and plans were made to seek formal authorization to continue along the directions discussed. In 1944 the High Speed Panel was composed of Russell Robinson from the Washington office, Harvey Allen, John Stack, and Eastman Jacobs. The airplane panel was active from 1948 to 1957, with a membership that remained approximately the same throughout the years, including representatives from all major NACA installations. The panel reviewed the work done in flight research, discussed new undertakings, and hashed over problems. Decisions reached at the meetings went directly to the main office for final approval.26

Another source of research ideas was the individual whose current work Sparked a spinoff. If an engineer was able to convince his section head and then the division chief that the idea was worthwhile, the proposal would be [62] taken up the administrative ladder. The division chief reviewed the research plan and consulted with one of the assistant directors. De France then received the recommendations of the assistant directors, and the plan was submitted to Washington with the hope of receiving a research authorization The assistant directors at Ames also played an important role in providing informed technical liaison between the laboratory and the NACA technical committees that reviewed the proposals.

If the originator of the idea was someone like Harvey Allen, who an associate said "could keep us supplied with research projects indefinitely,"27 the approval process could be automatic and informal. As division chief, Allen could do a certain amount of work on a new idea, sometimes even delegating a preliminary investigation to one of his subordinate sections, without getting official approval. Again, being able to pursue an idea without step-by-step authorization from above was probably of great benefit to the research process. The leeway granted by De France was an extension of the leeway granted to De France, and it created a fertile atmosphere in which new ideas could be tried without prior commitment to their long-term support. Barren leads could be abandoned without embarrassment. When initial work proved promising, then the formalities leading to a research authorization were begun.28

Applied research, that is, research directed more specifically at a practical need or problem, could also begin almost anywhere. Applied research projects most often resulted from a need of the military or the aircraft industry. The route taken by the idea before the research authorization appeared varied widely. In the case of the military, the need was usually expressed at the top first-the problem was brought to the attention of the Washington office. When George Lewis was the NACA's director of aeronautical research, his close ties with the armed forces usually meant that a military official came to him with a written request. Lewis then consulted one or more laboratories and issued the research authorization. Hugh Dryden, who succeeded Lewis in 1947, depended heavily on the technical bureaucracy of the NACA to aid in decision-making. Dryden renovated the technical committees and subcommittees, equipping them to take a much more active role than they had previously exercised.29

With the aircraft industry playing an increasingly important role on the technical subcommittees, it is also likely that many industrial problems were initially aired there, either directly or indirectly. The ethics of membership on one of the technical committees by a company officer supposedly prevented lobbying for specific, company-concerned interests, but certainly the NACA became more aware of industrial concerns after the war. Often industry made formal application for specific work. The problem was then referred to a subcommittee for consideration, and the research, if approved, was delegated to the most appropriate laboratory. The procedure served the [63] eastern companies well, but the western companies depended heavily on the NACA's Western Coordination Office for relaying research results to the main office.

Geography and the timing of Ames's establishment helped to forge close links between the Western Coordination Office, Ames, and the aircraft Companies on the West Coast. At the same time the laboratory was being planned' the Western Coordination Office was established; its head, Edwin Hartman, had been at Langley along with many of the new Ames staff. Hartman and De France were friends, and both men wanted to establish strong ties among Ames, the WCO, and industry.

Officially Hartman served as the liaison between western industry and the NACA. Even here, however, personal relationships and geography helped to keep Ames immediately abreast of developments in the field and of any issues or problems that might become of interest. Hartman visited the various companies frequently to confer with company officials and researchers, and then reported to the NACA what he had learned. He sent copies of his reports to Ames also, so that the local laboratory was always aware of his findings as soon as the main office was, if not before.30 Ames had a slight advantage in dealing with western industry, in that the informal communication network worked extremely well and that the laboratory was on the spot and usually eager to help. When industry made formal requests to the NACA, therefore, Ames could sometimes lend additional weight to the request, because of prior knowledge of and interest in the company's problem. This was true, for instance, in the case of the missile testing that Harvey Allen became interested in (p. 52). Although taking on the work for North American would further overload his staff, Allen was obviously excited by the research possibilities.31

After one of the laboratories was launched on a new research project, it was important that the others be kept informed of results. To a certain extent, communication among the laboratories was constant and informal. On a more formal level were conferences, such as meetings of the Research Airplane Projects Panel, to discuss successes, failures, and new directions for investigation. On an intermediate level, however, the research divisions of the laboratories submitted quarterly reports to their own laboratory directors, advising them on the status of current research. These detailed reports also went to the other laboratories for the benefit of researchers working in related areas. In the Ames files are years of Langley and Lewis reports, with copies for the laboratory's main files and for the individuals at Ames most closely connected with such research.32

Though for the most part communication among the research laboratories and the Western Coordination Office appears to have been quite good, Sometimes information was less effectively dispersed than it might have been. In 1953 J. W. Crowley, Dryden's deputy, asked all the laboratories to [64] send the Western Coordination Office "progress reports prepared at the laboratory for the various NACA subcommittees, . . . memorandums covering visits of people west of the Mississippi to the laboratory, . . . and official announcements dealing with changes in personnel and organization."33 He went on to remind the laboratories what the WCO could do for them in the way of obtaining West Coast information and military clearance for visiting NACA personnel. Crowley's memorandum indicates that cooperation among the NACA's subordinate units needed some attention.

A similar complaint was voiced a year later by an Ames engineer whose Langley counterpart had not received some Ames data of mutual interest. The Ames engineer had transmitted the test data to headquarters, as was standard procedure, but NACA apparently had dropped the ball. De France took the matter up with Crowley and received permission to send research data to the other laboratories and the head office simultaneously. But headquarters did not surrender its perquisites absolutely. The liberal procedure was "not to be used except in special cases."34

Research at Ames during the last years of the NACA emphasized fundamental investigations, although the relationship of the laboratory to industry became much more complex during this period. With the completion of the three Unitary Plan wind tunnels in 1952, industry was able to buy testing time in the tunnels on a regular basis. The obligations implied in the plan guaranteed that Ames would do applied research for outside concerns. Nevertheless Hugh Dryden* continued to stress, in his many articles and speeches of the early 1950s, the absolute necessity of keeping the NACA strong in fundamental research, warning that "the trend toward short-term specific investigations must not occur again to the same degree as during World War II."35 And the problems posed by transonic and supersonic flight continued to provide Ames with impetus for work in fundamental research. 36

 

RESEARCH DIRECTIONS

 

As transonic and supersonic flight became practicable, investigators found it desirable to reconsider the shape of aircraft. Wing and fuselage shapes had to be revised in light of new phenomena discovered at the higher speeds. The general shape of the wing came under investigation with regard [65] to drag and lift, and the wing's placement on the fuselage was also crucial to performance The shape of the fuselage underwent much rethinking, as researchers sought ways to minimize drag at both transonic and supersonic Speeds. Langley's Richard Whitcomb had been responsible for the experimental development of a transonic area rule -the "coke-bottle" shape- that reduced the cross-sectional area of the fuselage where the wings and engine components began, thereby decreasing drag.37 At Ames, R. T. Jones extended Whitcomb's ideas by devising a theoretical supersonic area rule. The area rules led to continued refinements in aircraft configurations, as researchers attempted to increase efficiency of operation and handling qualities.

In flight research, as in aerodynamic theory, high speed opened new areas where information was lacking and sorely needed. Speed itself made for control problems that had not been present in slower aircraft. In addition, the new shapes of aircraft created unusual control and stability characteristics that had to be investigated. The complex ways that component shapes affect maneuverability and control is a classic example of the often simultaneous sets of questions with which theory and actual flight are involved. The swept wing, for example, delayed or reduced shock waves occurring during transonic flight, but it also created stalling problems in low-speed flight. Flight research on these problems was necessary, and Ames aerodynamicists and pilots worked together on various possibilities.38 In the same period, stability and control concerns resulted in much work being done on high-speed tracking methods, the means by which an aircraft keeps its weapons trained on a moving target. At Ames in the early 1950s, tests on the tracking qualities of various aircraft led to refinements not only in the aircraft, but also in the methods used for tracking.

With regard to both aircraft stability experimentation and performance aspects of flight such as tracking ability, the 1952-1957 period saw the introduction of a new element into aerodynamic research. The computer was slowly coming to be used as an auxiliary method of theoretical and flight research and as a tool in the operation of aircraft. By computer-based studies, countless combinations of component shapes and associated flight characteristics could be analyzed. Tracking equipment using automatic, Computer-directed responses was developed. In the area of flight research, the first automatic control devices began to be used. Remote control of experimental aircraft lessened dangers to test pilots and also canceled out the human factor in tests, creating another means by which information could be obtained, analyzed, and evaluated. The advent of the computer in the various areas of aeronautical research was accompanied by its spreading use in administration, a development that eventually was to change the running of the laboratory.39

[66] Two other major areas of research during the period would later be of major significance for Ames. One was vertical and short take-off and landing (V/STOL). In the light of the increasing commitment Ames was to make to V/STOL studies, the first attempts now appear to have been primitive in the extreme,40 but the early recognition of the potential use of V/STOL aircraft placed Ames securely in the vanguard of this new branch of aeronautics.

The second and dramatic set of investigations and discoveries grew out of the developing importance of ballistic missile research. To launch and direct a heavy ballistic warhead, sending it at high speed into the upper atmosphere, presented several challenges. Control was a problem, but even more worrisome was aerodynamic heating upon reentry. Problems in aerodynamic heating were by no means confined to missiles, but were most....

 


1957. Harvey Allen explains his 1952 blunt-body theory.

1957. Harvey Allen explains his 1952 blunt-body theory. Allen's calculations showed that the bow-shock wave created by the movement of the blunt body through the atmosphere served to dissipate much of the aerodynamic heat away from the body itself. Allen's discovery solved the problem of aerodynamic heating during a spacecraft's reentry into the atmosphere. The shape of the Mercury space capsules reflected the blunt-body theory at work.

 

[67] ....critical in missiles because nothing else approached such speeds. In the early 1950s Harvey Allen turned his attention to ballistics reentry. His thinking completely changed the approach to the reentry heating problem. Previously researchers had taken as a given fact the slender needle-nosed shape of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The engineering problems associated with cooling such a slender body seemed insurmountable. Allen, discussing the problem informally, observed that "meteors get through the atmosphere, [so] the problem can be solved."41

The key to the puzzle came from an equation Allen developed; the solution was a blunt-shaped entry body. A blunt body moving at extreme speed generates a bow shock wave, which dissipates heat to the air. Only a small portion of the total heat remains in the boundary layer near the body. Allen subjected the idea to professional scrutiny among his colleagues; it was accepted as an ingenious solution to a problem that had stumped the aero-....

 


1959. Allen's principle illustrated. A shadowgraph of the Project Mercury reentry capsule, showing the bow-shock wave in front of it and the flow fields behind the capsule.

1959. Allen's principle illustrated. A shadowgraph of the Project Mercury reentry capsule, showing the bow-shock wave in front of it and the flow fields behind the capsule. At reentry speeds, radiative heat became a serious problem, leading researchers to explore also the process of ablation, the means by which a body absorbs heat by melting, evaporation, and sublimation. Ablation experiments were done in the Ames Atmospheric Entry Simulator.

 

[68] -....nautical research community. The blunt-nose principle was crucial not only for missile design, but later became even more well known when combined with ablation for heat shields. The design of essentially all reentry vehicles- ICBMs, the early manned spacecraft, the Space Shuttle-has been significantly influenced by the blunt-body concept.42

In a way, the early V/STOL research and the blunt-nose principle illustrate both ends of the spectrum of Ames's research strengths. Allen's discovery, being revolutionary, practical, and readily comprehensible, at least on a superficial level, to the layman, elevated him to national prominence. The V/STOL research of the period represented the quieter, less recognized, less immediately profitable research that remains the backbone of a good research laboratory. V/STOL was to become a major research field for Ames and a means by which aeronautics remained exciting in the age of astronautics. Both types of research were necessary-the full-blown output of individual imagination and the slower, more tentative steps taken by teams of research workers. That the laboratory supported both types of work strengthened its reputation and the morale of its personnel.

In 1947 J. C. Hunsaker, the chairman of the NACA, had been questioned about the results of a national poll that had just been taken. He expressed astonishment that 26% of the respondees expected orbital and interplanetary adventures within 10 years and observed rather drily that "this . . . poll indicates that people who know about rockets like them. The same is no doubt true with regard to helicopters, alcoholic drinks, and chamber music."43 But of course, exactly 10 years later Sputnik was in orbit. The Russian satellite was the visible goad that brought radical changes to the United States scientific and engineering programs, and especially to astronautics.

The furor created by the Soviet Union's surprise of October 1957, however, invites the conclusion that the American space program was only a response to Russian pressure. As Ames's work in the early 1950s illustrates, this was not true, although it is certainly accurate to say that a response to the Soviet achievement was a major investment of American energy, personnel, and funds in the following years. A realistic survey of American space history begins earlier and deals with the research laboratories of the NACA. The space frontier was approached less by a series of leaps than by a continuing effort in basic research that included the technological ingredients necessary for the push into space. The foundations of knowledge for satellites and manned spaceflight were being laid in the early 1950s. During that period, despite the hostilities of the Korean conflict and the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the space frontier was still a scientific frontier, an intellectual and technological challenge. Ames was moving toward that frontier-if at a pace that subsequently seemed too slow.


* Lewis retired in 1947. J. W. Crowley was acting director of aeronautical research until September, when Dryden took the job. Crowley continued as associate director, undoubtedly easing Dryden's way.


[
69-70] SOURCE NOTES

Chapter 3. The Lean Years, 1952-1957

 

1. John Dusterberry interview, 21 Apr. 1982.
 
2. Harry Goett interview, 3 Dec. 1981.
 
3. H. J. Allen to J. W. Crowley, "Memorandum on Proposal of North American Aviation, Inc., for Investigation of Factors Affecting Center-of-Pressure Movement throughout the Mach Number Range," Jan. 1948, 61-A-565, V-7209, San Bruno Federal Records Center (hereafter SBFRC).
 
4. Smith De France to Hugh Dryden, 12 Dec. 1949, 255-77-0020, RMO 5/62, box 81780, SBFRC.
 
5. Goett interview, 3 Dec. 1981.
 
6. Ibid.
 
7. Mildred Cardona Macon interview, 20 Sept. 1980.
 
8. Biographical detail on John Parsons was provided by personnel files collected by Edie Watson Kuhr.
 
9. Russell G. Robinson interview, 13 Apr. 1981.
 
10 ibid.
 
11. See Edwin P. Hartman, Adventures in Research: A History of Ames Research Center, NASA SP-4302 (Washington, 1970), pp. 162-164.
 
12. I have consulted organization charts of Ames drawn up for personal use by Merrill H. Mead and used his terminology for the non-research divisions. Another source of unofficial organization charts is the study of B. R Luczak, "A Management and Procedural Analysis of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics," written for the Graduate School of Business, Stanford Univ., 21 Apr. 1950.
 
13. Information regarding the financial running of the laboratory was received from Alan E. Fayé, Jr., interview, 1 Apr. 1981. Fayé also repeated the opinion that De France's position represented one of trust vis-a-vis the main office of the NACA.
 
14. Luczak, "Management and Procedural Analysis," p. 22.
 
15. Luczak, "Management and Procedural Analysis. "
 
16. This theory regarding Lewis's dislike of organization charts, provided by Russell G. Robinson interview, 4 Nov. 1980, has been repeated by other NACA employees.
 
17. Robinson interview, 13 Apr. 1981.
 
18. Luczak, "Management and Procedural Analysis," p. 21.
 
19. Walter G. Vincenti interview, 31 Oct. 1980; Russell G. Robinson interview, 13 Apr. 1981; and Alan E. Fayé interview, 1 Apr. 1981.
 
20. Luczak, "Management and Procedural Analysis," p. 21.
 
21. Hartman, Adventures in Research, app. A, p. 515.
 
22. Goett interview, 3 Dec. 1981.
 
23. This information has been given by several NACA-Ames employees. Out of 51 persons listed on the staff in 1940, at least 30 were still at Ames in 1950.
 
24. For a fascinating discussion of the life of a research authorization, see Alex Roland, Model Research: The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, 1915-1958, NASA SP-4103 (Washington, 1984), Appendix F.
25. Ibid.
 
26. See reports of the 1944 High-Speed Panel and the 1948-1957 Research Airplane Projects Panel in 61-A-565, V-7209, SBFRC.
 
27. Vincenti interview, 13 Aug. 1980.
 
28. The relationship between De France and his division chiefs and the freedom accorded them by De France have been mentioned by Walter Vincenti, Russell Robinson, and Alan E. Fayé,Jr.
 
29. This conclusion is based on inference. Lewis's personal style and many connections with the military have been stressed in many interviews. This does not seem to be true of Dryden. See Roland, Model Research, pp. 334-337.
 
30. Hartman's reporting procedure was explained to me by Edie Watson Kuhr. She was not sure if Hartman sent simultaneous copies to the other laboratories.
 
31. See no. 3.
 
32. See 61-A-565, V-7209, SBFRC for these reports. The most complete set is from 1950-1957 and concerns Langley's research airplane projects. Lawrence Clousing of the Full-Scale and Flight Research Div. was the recipient of the reports.
 
33. J. W. Crowley to labs, "Memorandum on Information To Be Supplied to the Western Coordination Office," 19 Mar. 1953, 74-A-1624, box 163111, SBFRC.
 
34. Memorandum by Charles W. Frick, 12 Aug. 1954, and memorandum by Smith J. De France, 23 Aug. 1954, 74-A-1624, box 163111, SBFRC.
 
35. Hugh Dryden, "Trends in NACA Research and Development," speech to SAE National Aeronautics Meeting, 5 Oct. 1951, 255-77-0020, RMO 5/62, box 81780, SBFRC. This speech is typical of the many Dryden gave during this period.
 
36. For a detailed discussion of the work undertaken at Ames during this period, see Hartman, Adventures in Research, pp. 199-215, 245-272.
 
37. Ibid., pp. 199-200.
 
38. Ibid., pp. 210-211.
 
39. The importance of the computer in the way Ames operated was stressed by Alan E. Fayé, Jr., who sees the presence of the computer in Ames's administrative practices is an unavoidable but complicating factor in the history of the laboratory.
 
40. Hartman, Adventures in Research, p. 252.
 
41. Observation of Victor Stevens, 16 Jan. 1983.
 
42. Ibid.
 
43. Quoted in a biographical abstract made by Walter Bonney, May 1972, for the J. C. Hunsaker papers, box 8, in the Smithsonian Institution.
 

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