[385] In the hot early summer of 1958, before the creation of NASA, Hugh Dryden brought engineer Robert R. Gilruth from Langley to Washington to plan a man-in-space program "which would be acceptable not only to the NACA, but also to the Advanced Research Projects Agency, (or ARPA, which had been established by President Eisenhower in January 1958 to gather all antimissile and satellite activities in the Defense Department) and, of course, to the President's scientific advisors."1 There, working less than ninety days in one large room on the sixth floor of the NACA building, a small task group of less than ten men, assembled by Gilruth over the telephone from the staffs of Langley and Lewis laboratories, came up with all of the basic principles of what would become Project Mercury.* The group's plan, which Gilruth outlined before the Senate Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration on 1 August 1958, was to use an existing ICBM booster - the air force's Atlas rocket - to launch a small manned capsule into orbit. (The army's Redstone rocket, developed by von Braun's group in Huntsville, was to be used for early suborbital test flights of the Mercury capsule.) After a few passes around the earth, a retrorocket would be fired to slow the satellite down and thus initiate its descent from orbit. Following reentry into the atmosphere, which would be accomplished safely thanks primarily to the capsule's blunt heat shield, a large parachute would deploy, carrying the capsule and its human passenger on their final approach and landing into the open sea, where they would be recovered by helicopter and brought home aboard a naval vessel.2 In essence, the plan for Mercury repeated what Langley engineer Max Faget, a member of Gilruth's task force, had proposed at the last NACA conference on highspeed aerodynamics in March 1958.

In the fall of the same year, after the establishment of NASA and ARPA's acceptance of the NACA's simple yet elegant plan for Project Mercury, Gilruth returned to Langley and immediately began to put together....




Robert R. Gilruth, 1959.

In the mid-1950s Robert R. Gilruth, more than anyone else at Langley, began to push the idea that manned spaceflight was the next great challenge for aeronautical engineers. As head of NASA's Space Task Group, he was responsible for planning and carrying out Project Mercury, the country's first manned spaceflight program.


.....a larger and more formal group whose task was to rush implementation of the manned satellite project. Though to be located at Langley, this Space Task Group, or STG, was to report not to Langley management, but, in accordance with the instructions of NASA Administrator T. Keith Glennan, to Abe Silverstein in Washington, a veteran NACA engineer who, in the new NASA organization, had been made head of all space projects at headquarters.

This novel situation of a kingdom within a kingdom troubled Langley managers, who had good reason to fear the loss of many of their best people from the traditionally strong general research programs, but of course the feeling did not stop them from cooperating with the crash effort. In fact Floyd Thompson, the center's associate director, made things easy for Gilruth: "When I asked him how I could get men transferred from the research center at Langley Field to my new Space Task Group, [Thompson] suggested that a simple memorandum to him, stating that I had been authorized by the Administrator to draft people from Langley, would allow me to name those whom I wanted."3 On 3 November 1958 Gilruth asked Thompson in writing for the transfer of 36 Langley personnel to STG, 14 of whom belonged to the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD) at [387] Wallops Island; the next day Thompson okayed all but one of the transfers - the sole exception being a man the Instrument Research Division wanted to keep, and for whom Thompson found a replacement. He even found a way to use the staffing of STG to the center's advantage. Thompson told Gilruth, "Bob, I don't mind letting you have as many good people from Langley as you need, but from now on I am going to insist that for each man you want to take, you must also take one that I want you to take." In this way, the associate director was able to serve both the interest of those employees who felt unfulfilled in their current positions, and were thus eager to transfer, and the interest of the center as a whole, by getting rid of employees who were causing some problem or who were disliked where they were.4

Although Thompson handled it well, the problem of staffing the Space Task Group signaled the start of a very intense and agitated era in Langley's history, that of the space technology revolution. The swift and enormous shift in emphasis from performing general aerodynamic research to planning and managing space hardware development and flight operations, a shift that began in association with Project Mercury, was a traumatic experience for Langley.

In part, this trauma resulted from a new and unusually heavy reliance on outsiders. "Contracting out" to private industry for certain necessary goods and services ran counter to the lab's tradition of the engineer in charge, the treasured independence (even from headquarters) and self-sufficiency made possible only by a broad range of in-house capabilities. But Project Mercury was "of an entirely different dimension than anything the NACA had ever done before," Gilruth remembers. "We had to cover many fronts, not only in the manufacturing area and the launch vehicle area, but also in the operations area." This coverage included procurement of the Atlas launch rockets from the air force and of the Redstone launch vehicles from the army, plus arrangement of launch services, as well as development of a worldwide satellite tracking network, coordination of recovery operations with the navy and air force, and cooperation between the various NASA centers involved in preflight testing. Specifications had to be prepared for industry, project guidelines had to be established, bidders had to be briefed, proposals from contractors had to be evaluated, contracts had to be placed, and work under contract (particularly at McDonnell Aircraft of St. Louis, which, in January 1959, was named prime contractor for the Mercury spacecraft) had to be supervised.5 And all of this had to be done in a hurry if the United States was going to put a man in space before the Soviet Union did.

[388] Besides adjusting to this new need to rely on outsiders, and besides absorbing the loss of talented personnel to the Space Task Group-which exploded in size from the original nucleus of 35 people in November 1958 to about 350 people in July 1959, over half of whom came from Langley-the center itself took on much of the direct responsibility for getting Mercury off the ground. Beginning in late November 1958, Langley provided extensive research and technical support for the development of the "Little Joe" launch vehicle, a new combination of four Sergeant solid rockets clustered in a single airframe, which had been conceived, even before STG was organized, by Langley engineers Faget and Purser as a means of testing the Mercury capsule configuration at Wallops Island before proceeding to the more expensive and difficult phases of testing at Cape Canaveral.6 Then came the job of constructing part of "Big Joe," a full-scale instrumented mockup of the proposed Mercury spacecraft, that was to be launched from Cape Canaveral on the top of an Atlas D booster in September 1959 to prove the design of the Mercury capsule and its ablative heat shield. (Langley designed and fabricated the capsule's afterbody; Lewis constructed the forward, pressurized sections; General Electric built the heat shield.)7 In February 1959, NASA headquarters gave complete responsibility for planning and contracting for the Mercury's worldwide tracking network to Langley.8 During the same month, a number of the center's high-speed wind tunnel specialists accompanied STG members on a visit to the air force's Arnold Engineering Development Center in Tullahoma, Tennessee, to ascertain whether AEDC's facilities were equipped to test scale models of the Mercury spacecraft and, if the facilities were found equipped, to arrange a testing schedule.9 At midyear the. center estimated that, not counting the dozens of people it had already transferred to STG, 119 of its 1150 professional employees were spending 100 percent of their time working in support of Project Mercury. Many others were exploring hypersonic aerodynamics, reentry physics, and the Mercury escape tower configuration either in various tunnels at the center or with rocket models at Wallops. From the spring of 1959 on, Langley provided NASA headquarters with weekly progress reports on its extensive support of Project Mercury.10 Only once before in Langley history, during World War II, had so many parts of the laboratory's organization been driven by the need, and the will, to perform with such singleness of purpose. And, unlike the wartime requirement, Project Mercury involved Langley in everything from in-house basic research, to out-of-house hardware development, to planning and management of actual flight operations.

The shift toward space technology development was also traumatic for Langley because it meant at least in part a shift away from aeronautics,....



Mercury space capsule in FST, 1959.


Little Joe launch vehicle on pad at Wallops Island, 1960.


Besides losing many talented personnel to the Space Task Group, Langley itself assumed much of the direct responsibility for getting Project Mercury off the ground. Above, the Mercury space capsule was tested in the center's Full-Scale Tunnel in January 1959; left, the Little Joe launch vehicle, being prepared here for a test launch from Wallops Island in January 1960, was conceived by Langley engineers Max Faget and Paul Purser even before STG was organized.


[390] .....the field which Langley engineers had been cultivating for over forty years. Veteran aeronautical engineer Raymond L. Bisplinghoff, who directed NASA's Office of Advanced Research and Technology from 1962 to 1966, put it mildly when he stated in a 1983 memoir that


the formation of NASA... had a dramatic, and at first deleterious, influence on the on-going program of aeronautical research [at the old NACA laboratories].
The new space tasks were often under scientists who worked on a space problem for one week and then switched back to aeronautics the next week. The work was done while the entire NACA staff was occupied with the problems of reorganization under NASA, with the pressure of expanding staff and facilities, and with the problems of contracting for and monitoring or managing programs with outside industrial contractors.
The massive priority which the country, from the president on down, placed on eclipsing the Russian lead in space flight had a profound influence on the NACA aeronautical research staff as they assumed positions in the new agency. Many took advantage of opportunities to move to higher grades and levels of responsibility in space activities. As a result, many moved from aeronautical research task to space program management tasks.11


Others, like John Stack, were so sure that the first A in NASA was being erased forever that they decided to leave the space agency entirely. At the time, especially after NASA's annual R&D budget for aeronautics fell below a million dollars in 1962, these disillusioned aviation enthusiasts could not have known how extensive y, or how successfully, NASA would rebuild its aeronautics program in following its major buildup for space.**

NASA's primary emphasis on building competence in space technology and on funding manned pace flight caused some severe dislocations at Langley in the 1960s, to be sure. Moreover, it caused a major change in the way the public perceived the research center. Under the NACA, Langley was, relatively speaking, a low-key, mind-its-own-business type of organization whose activities were invisible to the average American.

[391] When residents of he Ham ton area thought about Langley scientists and engineers, which was very rarely, they considered them as NACA nuts. But now, especially after the seven Mercury astronauts began their nationally publicized spaceflight it training under STG direction at the center in April 1959, the area's residents perceived Langley's staff members more as wizards - technological magicians who could not only explain to them the meaning of the foreign objects orbiting ominously overhead, but who could also answer whatever challenges to the nation's security those objects implied.*** (Conjure he scent from The Wizard of Oz: the wicked witch flies over the Emerald City spelling out "Surrender Dorothy," and all the terrified citizens rush to the wizard to find out what it means. In an exaggerated way, this gives some idea of how the Sputnik crisis and the resulting American in space program triggered the local public's feelings of wonder about, and admiration for, Langley.) When Mercury proved successful, and ultimately grew into Project Apollo, respect for the center grew even greater - especially among the young people, as was indicated by the dramatic increase in mail received from students seeking information about NASA and its pace programs. But adults were also caught up in the wave of enthusiasm. Hamptonians were so pleased with the attention that the space programs were bringing to their city that they voted to change the name of "Military Highway" to "Mercury Boulevard" and to dedicate the town's bridges in honor of the astronauts.

But despite the trauma in staffing and in reliance on outsiders, despite the professional dislocations for engineers and researchers, and despite the transformation in public perception, the space technology revolution of the 1960s did not destroy the legacy of the engineer in charge. There war a great deal about the place under NASA that remained virtually he same as it had been under the NACA. Those who had performed key research and supervisory jobs at the end of the NACA years played similar roles in the early NASA. Employees followed nearly all of the same procedures to initiate, monitor, and terminate work as had been followed in the last years of the NACA. Partial autonomy from headquarters and resistance to central controls continued to flourish. This remained true at least through the time that Floyd...



Mercury astronauts at Langley, 1959.

The spaceflight training of the Mercury astronauts (front row from left, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Do aid "Deke" Slayton, Gordon Cooper; back row, Alan Shepard, Walter Schirra, and John Glenn) at Langley caused a major change in local residents' perception of the research center. Instead of considering the laboratory as the home of NACA nuts, they now saw it as the home of NASA wizards.


.....Thompson, engineer and NACA veteran of forty years, acted as director of the center (1960-1968).

In May 1968 Edgar M. Cortright, age 45, succeeded Thompson, age 69, as Langley's director. In certain respects the coming of Cortright was in keeping with Langley tradition. Like Thompson and Henry Reid, he was an engineer hose firs professional employment was with the NACA. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1947, Cortright had gone right to work at the NACA's Lewis laboratory, where he had specialized in the propulsion aerodynamics of supersonic aircraft and guided missiles. While in Cleveland, he ad grow very close to Abe Silverstein, Lewis's dynamic associate director. Because Silverstein had worked at Langley from 1929 to 1943, Cortright, h s protégé, was familiar with many of the traditions of the NACA's first laboratory.

But the coming of Cortright also meant dramatic change. Unlike his two predecessors engineer-in-charge, he had never worked at Langley. Instead of making his way to a high position through leadership in the laboratory's general research program, Cortright had earned the directorship....




Floyd L. Thompson, Edgar M. Cortright, and Donald P. Hearth, the third, fourth, and fifth engineers in charge, 1975.

Floyd L. Thompson (left), former center director retired since 1968, and Edgar M. Cortright (middle), outgoing director, welcome Donald P. Hearth as the new director (and fifth engineer-in-charge) of Langley Research Center in August 1975.


....through his project management work at NASA headquarters**** - where by the mid-1960s, a few Key Langley veterans believe, there were some strong feelings at the top that Langley had gone its own way too often under Thompson's NACA style of management and needed to be brought under tighter central control.

A complete historical analysis of Cortright 's appointment, and of the style and substance (f his subsequent administration (May 1968 through August 1975), belong not in his book, however, but in its sequel. Here one need state only that by the end of the second year of his tenure Cortright had directed the most sweeping reorganization in the center's history.12



Floyd L. Thompson reflecting on the design of the DeHavilland DH-4, 1967.

Thompson reflects back in time to the design of this DeHavilland DH-4, the only aircraft built (under license) in the United States to serve in combat during World War I. The National Air and Space Museum loaned this historic aircraft to Langley in the fall of 1967 o the occasion of the laboratory's fiftieth anniversary.


Floyd Thompson retired from government service in November 1968, after serving for six months administrator James Webb's special assistant and as chairman f a special group at headquarters whose task was to evaluate future manned spaceflight projects in the wake of Apollo.13 He died on 10 July 1976, ten days before the first Viking lander touched down on the surface of Mars.

In retirement, after a life devoted to the advancement of flight, Thompson had looked back on the progress of American aeronautics in his time and had wondered: How w it that we were able to go from Kitty Hawk to the moon in the course f one man's lifetime? During World War I his high school science teacher ad not been able to teach him anything about the principles of aeronautical engineering, because the teacher could not have known about them. His professors at the University of Michigan had informed him in the early 1920s that these principles had yet to be fully discovered, which meant that professional researchers still had to investigate the difficulties of the past, collect facts, and then, after finding out the meaning of the facts, determine the principles of flight. That investigation was part of the mission Thompson had assumed when he accepted a job with the NACA in 1926.

[395] Four months after reporting to work at Langley Field, Thompson had witnessed the Schneider Cup ace over Hampton Roads; a U.S. Navy pilot took second place in the race flying an R3C-2 at the "fantastic" average speed of 231 miles per hour. The following year, as Thompson was helping to conduct flight research on seaplanes and rigid airships, Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic. American aviation had boomed.

By the mid-1930s, Thompson's colleagues at Langley were beginning to explore the possibility of flight at more than 500 miles per hour. "And just as we got to the transonic field," Thompson exclaimed in a 1972 interview, "then all of a sudden we opened up with the supersonic field and find out that we're flying - militarily anyway - we're flying at speeds of [Mach] 2 and 3. And you just about get that pretty well understood and, Holy Smoke, here we are going to he moo and things like that."14

Somehow, in less than seventy years, aviation had moved from the Jenny to the X-15, from the drone of propellers to the roar of jets and rockets, from wind tunnels generating a maximum airflow speed of 90 miles per hour to tunnels generating Mach 8, from flight a few hundred feet above the ground to flight in space. For Thompson, the most incredible fact of this altogether incredible history w this: it was work that he and other individuals like him had done that was large! responsible for it.

How had these people been able to advance the technological front so far so fast? No doubt, part of he answer rests - as Laurence K. Loftin, Jr., Thompson's longtime associate at Langley, points out in his 1985 book Quest for Performance: The Evolution of Modern Aircraft - in the unique nature of the airplane itself: "In no other type of machine, with the possible exception of space vehicles, do the often conflicting requirements of performance, safety, reliability, and economic viability place such a high premium on detailed design optimization."15 But before this inherent motive for innovation could become a potent force driving the work of professional engineers, the airplane had to achieve a mission - and one recognized as important by a modern industrial society. This achievement was realized, of course, during World War I, "the demands of combat aviation," together with the international struggle for air superiority, transformed the airplane from a "useless freak" into a highly practical and versatile vehicle whose every detail had to b designed rigorously if the total configuration was to prove successful.16

From that time on, as ore and different missions for aircraft were conceived, aircraft design criteria changed radically and almost without interruption. And n single organization of aeronautical engineers felt the pressures and exhilarations of his flux any more than did those who worked at Langley. Faced with the challenge of constantly looking ahead, probing [396] for problems, an establishing the feasibility of what the country's leaders wanted to be doing in relation to flight, the best NACA researchers made change into a habit, and the expectation of surprise into a rule of thumb. In many respects, this was a humbling experience, to learn over and over again that what they ad not k own at a given moment played as important a role in the evolution of an aircraft as what they had known, and to admit, both to themselves and to outsiders, that aerodynamic effects about which they had known absolutely nothing just a few years ago (such as the effects of boundary layer, in the 1 the 1920s; of wind tunnel turbulence and of wing surface roughness, in the 1930s; and of the total cross-sectional area of wings, fuselage, d tail o transonic drag rise, in the late 1940s) were now among the most critical items on their research agenda.17

But the humbling experience prepared them well for what was to come. As the golden age of atmospheric flight reached full maturity in the 1950s-with only a few major things (like a supersonic transport) left undone-many of these same researchers moved successfully from their mature aeronautical specialties into the new ones of spaceflight and reentry. This cross-flow came largely from the young field of hypersonics.

The role of his cross-flow in the indisputable success of the overall American aerospace effort from the 1950s to the present should hold some meaning for those who are today educating and employing engineers. As Arthur L. Donovan, an historian of technology, wrote in a 1985 report for the National Research Council's Committee on Education and Utilization of the Engineer:


The realization that the engineering manpower system possesses a high degree of resilience h important implications for engineering education. Because we are incapable o predicting with a useful degree of accuracy future shifts in the demand for engineers, and because the response times of universities are so slow in comparison with those f the marketplace for engineering labor, attempts to tie the content of engineering education closely to the needs of industry have been of little use in anticipating or responding to short-term stresses in the engineering manpower system. Indeed, attempts to forge a tight link between engineering curricula and specific employment opportunities have probably done more harm than good from the point of view of individual flexibility and the resilience of the system, or they have emphasized specialization at an early stage of education and have thereby reduced the breadth of understanding that in fact facilitates movement between specialties.18


One wonders if the young engineers who are undergoing early, highly specialized training today will be able to show the same conceptual and technical versatility that enabled Langley's engineers of the NACA period to move so fruitfully among old and new disciplines.

* Gilruth's original task group included Max Faget, Paul Purser, Chuck Mathews, and Charles Zimmerman from Langley, Andre Meyer, Scott Simpkinson, and Merritt Preston from Lewis, as well as a few part-timers who were brought in on an "as needed" basis. Later in the summer, under pressure to finalize a plan, Gilruth added Lewis's George Low and Warren North and Langley's Charles Donlan to his full-time staff.

** During the 197( NASA scientists and engineers would make significant contributions to aeronautical technology, including the development of the variable-sweep wing and of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capabilities, the design of the supercritical airfoil, and the refinement of energy-efficient engines and fuels. Much of the work behind these contributions was done at Langley. Today, there is renewed interest at the center in the development of an American SST, a 250-passenger supersonic transport capable of cruising speeds in excess of Mach 2.5. See Richard H. Petersen and Cornelius Driver, "Readying Technology for a Super SST," Aerospace America 23 (July 1985): 56-59. Furthermore, Langley is also now spearheading the national effort to develop new technologies leading to a hypersonic transport or HST, one proposed version of which is known as the "Orient Express." This vehicle would be capable of traveling twenty-five times faster than sound, going into orbit, or flying from Washington to Tokyo in two hours.

*** In The Good Old Days in Hampton and Newport News (Richmond, Va.: Dietz Press, 1986), local historian and newspaper Columnist Parke Rouse, Jr., remarked: "We locals at first regarded the bearded NACA [Nuts] weirdos, up to no good. They dressed and acted like kooks, and they worked mysterious jobs. But years later, when that research produced trips to the moon, we had to take it all back" (p. 69). Rouse's reference to bearded NACA Nuts undoubtedly testifies to the impact of Eastman Jacobs on the local public.

**** When Silverstein came to Washington in the summer of 1958 to help prepare the transition to NASA, he brought Cortight with him. For most of his years in Washington, Cortright was associated with the unmanned space program (including the Mariner, Ranger, and Surveyor projects), where his immediate boss was Homer E. Newell, a former chief scientist at the Naval Research Laboratory. In 1963 Cortright became NASA's deputy associate administrator for space science and applications. Just before coming to Langley, he became deputy associate director of the Office of Manned Space Flight (OMSF).

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