The Metamorphosis


It was the worm, if you will, going into the cocoon and coming out a butterfly.

- Walter Bonney, NACA/NASA public relations officer


[1] The first week of October 1958 was a busy time for the newspapers of Tidewater Virginia. Top stories included the explosive failure of an Atlas missile at Cape Canaveral, an atomic blast in Nevada that sent news and test personnel scurrying for cover from radiation fallout, the question of Red China's membership in the United Nations, and a United Auto Workers strike against the Ford Motor Company. Receiving the biggest headlines in the local papers, however, were stories concerning the path of Hurricane Helene up the Atlantic coast and the furor over the court-ordered integration of public schools, which was taking place as far away as Little Rock, Arkansas, and as nearby as Richmond and Norfolk. Not even making the front page of the Newport News Daily Press on the cool, overcast morning of Wednesday, 1 October 1958, was the news that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) had died the night before at midnight, only to be reborn at 12:01 a.m. as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Just a few hours earlier, on Tuesday, 7000 people had left work as NACA employees, but when they reported to their same jobs in the same buildings the next morning, they became members of NASA.*

A few NACA veterans might have felt a twinge of doubt as they drove past the new NASA sign at the gates of Langley Research Center, but most NACA personnel were not at all nervous or wary about the changeover. Plans for an easy transition had been in the works for at least eight months, [2] since President Dwight D. Eisenhower's panel of scientific advisers had recommended that a new civilian space agency be organized around the NACA.1 Almost everything about working at Langley Field, or at any of the other former NACA facilities around the country, was supposed to remain the same. Employees had been reassured for several weeks by NACA headquarters and by Langley management that they were to come to work as always and do the same things they had been doing. Their jobs already had much to do with the nation's quickly accelerating efforts to catch up with the Soviet Union and launch America into space. As NASA personnel, they were simply to keep up the good work.

After watching from a distance the hysteria provoked by the Soviet satellites and the political jousting and bureaucratic haggling that followed, Langley employees were relieved to see President Eisenhower resist the pressures applied by the military, particularly the air force, to militarize the infant American space program.2 Ike, the former five-star army general and leader of the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe in 1944, had risen above these pressures and put civilians in charge, entrusting the NACA with the space program. A small overhead agency that was both focused and accustomed to squeezing a dollar, the NACA appealed to a genuine balanced-budget man like Eisenhower.

The creation of the NACA had been quite different from that of NASA. Although a group of prominent Smithsonian and Washington aviation enthusiasts had conceived the idea of an organization devoted to the support of aeronautical development as early as 1910, the actual founding of this new federal agency proved difficult, especially since aviation had not yet demonstrated its efficacy in World War I combat. In fact, establishment of the NACA might not have been approved if a friendly group of congressmen, fearing that President Woodrow Wilson's policy of neutrality was preventing the United States from properly preparing for its inevitable role in the war, had not devised a successful last-minute maneuver. In a classic example of American political sleight-of-hand, they attached the NACA enabling act as a rider to a naval appropriations bill that was sure to pass, and the NACA came into being on 3 March 1915.3

For an important new government body to be established in such a manner was really quite extraordinary. But certainly no one in 1915 or for several years thereafter, perhaps not even many early NACA employees, considered the NACA very important. Now, 43 years later, President Eisenhower was making it the heart of the new American space program for which everyone was clamoring. Because of the heated public debate over national space policy, NASA could not have been founded in the relatively invisible way that the NACA had been established. Unlike the old agency, NASA was going to be exposed to direct congressional, media, and, consequently, public scrutiny from the start.

Probably no NACA employees arriving at work on NASA's first day anticipated the impact that this new life in a goldfish bowl eventually would....



Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1958

Although his administration gave birth to NASA, President Dwight D. Eisenhower did not believe that the United States should rush into a "crash" federal program to beat the Soviets into space. Instead, he hoped for a more judicious and less hysterical approach to space exploration, one that would not require massive infusions of public funds but would still enable the United States to remain a leader, if not the leader, in space. His Democratic successors, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, would commit the country to an all-out race.


.....have on their work and workplace. Change is difficult to perceive and evaluate while it is happening, let alone when it occurs in the middle of a week. Charles J. Donlan, veteran Langley researcher and soon-to-be-named associate director of NASA's Space Task Group, later reminisced about the innocence of his thoughts on the day the NACA became NASA: "It was like passing from December 31 to January 1 without going to a party You didn't know the difference except that it was the New Year and you had to start signing your checks for one year later."4 Indeed, a new era had begun, and although this was not apparent on the uneventful morning of 1 October 1958, Langley Research Center was now exposed to the complex forces and extreme circumstances that were rapidly reshaping U.S. aeronautical research and blasting the center pell-mell into space.


The Venerable Order of the NACA


The basic duty of the NACA, as expressed in its charter, was "to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight, with [4] a view to their practical solution, and to determine the problems which should be experimentally attacked, and to discuss their solution and their application to practical questions." But the original charter of 1915 did not assure the funds for the large, diversified, and increasingly expensive research establishment that the NACA eventually became. It stated only that "in the event of a laboratory or laboratories, either in whole or in part, being placed under the direction of the committee, the committee may direct and conduct research and experiment in aeronautics."5

That mandate was general enough to allow widely differing interpretations, and not everyone responsible for the NACA in its formative years agreed on what the mandate meant or, rather, what it should mean. Some felt that the NACA should remain small and continue to serve, as it had throughout World War I, merely as an advisory body devoted to scientific research. Others argued that the NACA should grow larger and combine basic research with engineering and technology development. This second group wanted the NACA to attack the most pressing problems obstructing the immediate progress of American aviation; the group did not want the agency to spend all of its time on ivory-tower theoretical problems that would not result in many quick, practical payoffs. To be so effective, the NACA needed to have its own laboratory facilities and conduct its own programs of research.

The NACA moved slowly but surely along the second course, and building a laboratory became its first order of business. Construction of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, the NACA's original field station, began approximately 100 miles southeast of Washington, on an isolated peninsula of Tidewater Virginia in 1917. Named after Dr. Samuel P. Langley (1835-1906), an eminent American scientist whose pioneering experiments with powered flight at the turn of the century had been a mixture of success and failure, Langley served as the NACA's only research center for the next 20 years.6 Some flight research was conducted there in late 1919 and early 1920, but the laboratory did not really begin routine operations until after the completion of its first wind tunnel in the summer of 1920.

By the mid-1920s, engineers, not scientists, were put in charge at Langley. The head of the laboratory would in fact be called the "engineer in charge." The choice of engineers over scientists reinforced the NACA's decision to become an agency concerned with the practical, not the purely theoretical. Engineers would always support the NACA's charter. On Langley engineer Floyd L. Thompson's desk sat a framed quotation of the essence of the charter: "The scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution." The quote stayed on Thompson's desk until he retired from NASA as the director of Langley Research Center in 1968.

In the years following its founding, the NACA expanded far beyond the advisory role defined in its charter. The NACA served as a national clearinghouse for scientific and technical information by establishing uniform....



Map of Tidewater Virginia, 1930s.

A Langley map of the Tidewater Virginia area from the late 1930s.


Floyd L. Thompson.

Floyd L. "Tommy" Thompson was Langley Research Center's associate director in 1958, its "number two" man under longtime and soon-to-retire Director Henry J. E. Reid. The number two man in those days also acted as the chief of research. L-62-0373


Langley Aircraft Manufacturers' Conference, 1934.

Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh, and Howard Hughes were among the attendees at Langley's 1934 Aircraft Manufacturers' Conference. Conference guests assembled underneath a Boeing P-26A Peashooter in the Full-Scale Tunnel for this photo. L-9850


[7] ....aeronautical terminology; publishing reports; and collecting, compiling, and disseminating basic information in the various fields pertinent to aeronautics. It also contracted out research projects to universities. From 1926 on, it held annual meetings known as the NACA Aircraft Manufacturers' Conferences, which brought in experts from around the United States to talk about aviation technology and what the NACA should be doing to stimulate further progress.7 It built up staffs to conduct research in aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, structures, and propulsion. Solutions to problems in these areas led to the design and operation of safer, faster, higher flying, and generally more versatile and dependable aircraft. With these aircraft, the United States became a world power in commercial and military aviation, and Allied victory in World War II was assured.

To help meet the demand for advanced airplane work during World War II, the NACA created four new national facilities and seeded them with staff from Langley. They were the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory, built in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1941 (later renamed the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory and later still the Lewis Research Center); the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, created at Moffett Field, California, also in 1941 (later renamed Ames Research Center); the Pilotless Aircraft Research Station, built on barren Wallops Island on Virginia's Eastern Shore in 1944 (later renamed Wallops Station); and the High-Speed Flight Station, established at Muroc Field (subsequently, Edwards Air Force Base [AFB]), California, in 1946 (later renamed Dryden Flight Research Center). At the last facility in the high California desert, a special unit of engineers from Langley supervised the flight trials of the first supersonic airplanes, the Bell X-1 and the Douglas D-558. Considering the many technological firsts and other achievements arising from this array of unique facilities, it is clear why many experts believe the NACA did at least as much for aeronautical progress as any organization in the world.8

Indeed, the NACA's track record was not bad for a committee, or rather, for a pyramid of committees- the NACA consisted of more than one. Foremost was the NACA's Main Committee, an unpaid body that met twice a year in Washington to identify and discuss the key research problems that the agency should tackle. Until World War II, it comprised 12 members and from then on 15. Members represented the War and Navy departments (normally two from each), the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. Weather Bureau, and the National Bureau of Standards, as well as select universities, industries, and airlines. The list of 120 men who served on the NACA Main Committee ("The NACA") from 1915 to 1958 is a "Who's Who', of American aeronautics: Dr. Joseph S. Ames, Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, Dr. Vannevar Bush, Harry F. Guggenheim, Dr. William F. Durand, Dr. Jerome C. Hunsaker, Charles A. Lindbergh, Adm. William A. Moffett, Capt Edward V. "Eddie" Rickenbacker, Gen. Carl "Tooey" Spaatz, Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg, and Orville Wright, to name a few. The president of the United States appointed all members, and in turn the Main Committee....



NACA Main Committee, 1929.


An 18 April 1929 meeting of the NACA Main Committee. Around this table sat some of the most outstanding authorities on the science, technology, and military uses of flight. Left to right: John F. Victory, NACA secretary; Dr. William F. Durand, professor and head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Stanford University; Dr. Orville Wright; Dr. George K. Burgess, director, Bureau of Standards; Brig. Gen. William E. Gilmore, U.S. Army; Maj. Gen. James E. Fechet, Chief of Air Service, USA; NACA Chairman Dr. Joseph S. Ames, professor of physics and president of Johns Hopkins University; NACA Vice-Chairman Dr. David W. Taylor, former Chief Naval Constructor, U.S. Navy; Capt. Emory S. Land, Navy Bureau of Aeronautics; Rear Adm. William A. Moffett, Chief, Bureau of Aeronautics; Dr. Samuel W. Stratton, former director, Bureau of Standards; Dr. George W. Lewis, NACA director of research; Dr. Charles F. Marvin, Chief, Weather Bureau. L-90-3727


....reported directly to him via an annual written report. The eighth and last chairman of the Main Committee was Dr. James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle, the former racing pilot, air war hero, retired air force general, and Ph.D. in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). On 30 September 1958, the day before NASA took over, he sent the NACA's 44th and last annual report to President Eisenhower.

The NACA was quite independent. Although the president appointed its members, he did so on advice from the standing NACA Main Committee, advice that Eisenhower and his predecessors almost always took. This helped to take politics out of the selection process. Furthermore, the Main Committee chose its own chairman and director of research and, in the words of longtime NACA member (1922-1923, 1938-1958) and former chairman...



Henry J. E. Reid, Vannevar Bush, and George W. Lewis.

One of the outstanding men to chair the NACA was Vannevar Bush (center), the computer pioneer and head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II. Bush chaired the NACA from 1939 to 1941. On either side of Bush stand George W. Lewis, the NACA's longtime director of research (right) and Henry Reid, Langley's engineer-in-charge (left). L16,243.


....(1941-1956) Jerome Hunsaker, "ran its show, within its budget, made its own statements to Congress for what it wanted to do and could do and was doing, and got [its] budgets without any interference from the executive branch of government."9

Organizationally, the old NACA committee system did not stop with the Main Committee.10 Its members elected a smaller Executive Committee of seven who served terms of one year and acted as the NACA's actual governing body. This Executive Committee also appointed several technical committees that provided expertise to the parent committees on such major subjects as aerodynamics, power plants for aircraft, and aircraft construction In turn, these committees (actually subcommittees) created sub(sub)-committees of their own to study and give advice in more specialized areas, such as aircraft fuels, aircraft instruments, and aircraft operating problems. The NACA also had special committees, usually ad hoc, that dealt with extraordinary problems such as the need, in 1938, to build new facilities to [10] meet the threat of another world war. Twenty years later, in the middle of another international crisis, the NACA had a special committee working to explore the ramifications of Sputnik and to help formulate a space policy for the NACA.

The committee system did not work perfectly, but in its unique way it did work. Prominent people in the American aviation enterprise became familiar with NACA capabilities and NACA results; concurrently, the NACA benefited from the insight of many talented and experienced men (no women ever served on any of the NACA committees). Further, the connections and the prestige of committee members helped the NACA to win friends and secure appropriations from Congress. Over the years, outsiders such as the Brookings Institution, self-styled experts in government organization, and several officers in the Bureau of the Budget had viewed the committee system of advise and consent as a messy way to structure and manage a federal agency. But NACA insiders did not. Nothing about the committee system meddled seriously in any unwelcome fashion with work in the laboratories. The actual management of the research operation was left to the civil servants who worked full-time for the NACA. Within the laboratory itself, management was left to the engineer-in-charge.**

At the Washington level, the management of research was left to the NACA's director of research. Only two men held this post during the NACA's 43-year history. Dr. George W. Lewis (honorary doctorate from Swarthmore, his alma mater) held the post from the time it was established in 1919 until his retirement in 1947. Dr. Hugh Dryden (one of the youngest Ph.D.'s ever to come out of Johns Hopkins University, in 1919, at age 21) served from 1947 to 1958. These two men, of very different backgrounds, demeanors, and talents, guided the NACA through the rapid technological evolution and sudden revolutions that in less than half a century had taken aeronautics on a turbulent whirlwind from the era of wooden biplanes, ponderous airships, and subsonic flight into the age of jets, supersonics, and rockets at the edge of spaceflight.11

Most critics agreed that the NACA had served the general cause of American aeronautics well for more than 40 years. But now in the wake of Sputnik, they felt the time had come for a major reorganization and the injection of new blood. By early 1958, a growing number of American leaders joined in that opinion and were ready to tell the NACA thanks, slap it on the back, and bring its experiment in government organization to an end. A bold new initiative was required if the United States was to catch up to the Soviet Union. Space enthusiast Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, chairman of the Senate's new Special Committee on Space and Astronautics, felt this....



George W. Lewis

Hugh L. Dryden.

The NACA's directors of Research, George W. Lewis (left) and his successor, Dr. Hugh L. Dryden (right). L-90-3751


...way as did others. They claimed that the old NACA was too timid and too conservative about exploring the potential of space. Such critics, as well as some "young Turks" inside the NACA, felt that if the organization was to be reincarnated as NASA, then it should be revamped with new personnel and additional facilities and charged up by new leaders.12 Out of this general sentiment for major change came the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. The Space Act gave NASA an advisory board, but insiders knew it could not be the same as it was under the NACA. On NASA's first day, 1 October 1958, the NACA committee system was essentially discarded.


Glennan: Welcome to NASA


At the head of NASA was Dr. T. Keith Glennan. When Eisenhower announced Glennan as his choice for the NASA administrator on 9 August 1958, people at Langley and at other NACA centers asked, who was Glennan? They learned that he was the president of Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland. Then he must be a member of the NACA Main Committee? No, he was a former Hollywood movie mogul and a minor one at that, not in the class of a Samuel Goldwyn or Louis B. Mayer.

These answers, which circulated via the NACA grapevine late in the Summer of 1958, appalled some NACA employees, did not make much sense to most, and made none of them very happy. In its 15 August edition, the Langley Air Scoop, the in-house newspaper, ran a picture of 53-year-old [12] Glennan along with a complete biographical sketch provided by Case Institute of Technology. Reading this article, Langley employees found that Glennan indeed had been a manager for Paramount and Samuel Goldwyn studios during World War II, but that his overall career was marked by "achievements in business, education, and the administration of scientific research.''13 In recent years he had served on the Atomic Energy Commission and on the board of the National Science Foundation, and he was sup posed to have excellent connections in Washington. Considering the highly charged and politicized atmosphere now surrounding everything that had to do with rockets and space, something finally made sense about Glennan's selection. At ceremonies held in the White House on Tuesday, 19 August, Dr. Glennan raised his right hand, put his left on a Bible, and pledged the oath as NASA administrator. On the same Bible, close enough to touch the ends of his fingers, was the left hand of faithful Methodist lay minister Dr. Hugh Dryden, the NACA's director of research. Although many in Congress wanted Dryden out of the picture because they thought that his quiet, almost mousy personality and conservative approach to launching America into space might tarnish the images of youthfulness, dynamism, and boldness they wanted for NASA, Glennan had insisted on making him his deputy administrator, and Dryden had accepted.14 Glennan thought that this selection would help provide continuity and make the metamorphosis into NASA, as well as his own administration, easier for NACA people to accept. Other NACA headquarters officers came to NASA with Dryden, including John F. Victory, the Main Committee's fastidious executive secretary and first employee. (Victory had been working for the NACA since 1915.) Some viewed President Eisenhower's appointment of Jimmy Doolittle, the last NACA chairman, to his nine-member National Aeronautics and Space Council as another gesture toward the NACA old guard. For Eisenhower, however, the appointment of Doolittle was more than a gesture. Ike knew Doolittle, his former World War II air force commander in North Africa and Europe; trusted his judgment; and wanted his moderate, reasonable, and experienced voice on the newly formed space council.

On the morning of 1 October 1958, not a single member of the Langley senior staff was likely to have remembered ever meeting Glennan. The new NASA administrator had not yet visited Langley or any other NACA facility, at least not as the NASA administrator. However, the former Hollywood executive had appeared at Langley via motion picture. On 22 September, the NACA public affairs officer in Washington, Walter Bonney, sent copies of a short 10-minute film, "Glennan Message to NACA Employees," for immediate showing at all NACA centers.15

At Langley, employees gathered in the East Area a few days later to watch the film in the air force base's air-conditioned theater, next to the old 19-Foot Pressure Tunnel, which dated to 1939. From its beginning, something about the film made many people in the audience uneasy. Perhaps they were disturbed by the Orwellian undertone of the presentation, a confident and....



T. Keith Glennan, 1958

Glennan introduces himself to the Langley staff via motion picture. L-58-14a


....soothing "Big Brother" message coming to the people electronically from the center of government. This message did not come from the NACA's staid old headquarters at 1512 H Street NW in Washington (referred to as the "Washington office"), but rather from Glennan's new deluxe office within the recently acquired suite of NASA administrative offices in the Dolly [sic (Dolley)] Madison House at nearby 1520 H Street NW. Word had circulated that Glennan had had his office suite decorated just like the one he had enjoyed as president of Case Institute of Technology.

The movie opened with the NASA administrator leaning on the front of his desk. "I very much want to talk with you about our future," Glennan began But before he described "the mighty big job" that lay ahead for NASA, he took time to praise the NACA. He explained that during his 11 years at Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, he had worked with many people at NACA Lewis. He was both "familiar with [the] NACA's traditions and accomplishments," and "impressed by the high state of morale and by tie vigor,, with which the NACA conducted its research.16 Glennan failed to mention, however, what he would soon record in his personal diary, his opinion that the NACA staff was "composed of reasonably able people," lacking experience in the "management of large affairs."17 According to....



T. Keith Glennan and Henry J. E. Reid, 1959.

Glennan's first live appearance at Langley in early January 1959. Here he is being welcomed by Henry Reid, the center director. L-59-22


....one member of the Langley senior staff, Glennan "had so little knowledge of the organization" at the outset that he did not think its staff "had any competence." Upon seeing the huge vacuum spheres belonging to the Gas Dynamics Laboratory at Langley, Glennan allegedly remarked, "NASA doesn't have any capability to handle that kind of high pressure stuff. You're going to have to get some help from outside to do that, you know.''18

Despite his true feelings, Glennan stressed in his message that "NASA must be like [the] NACA in the qualities of strength and character that make an organization great," but he also emphasized the arrival of "a new day" at Langley. To describe that new day, the NACA's changeover to NASA, Glennan quoted from what he called the "legalistic language" of the Space Act: "the NACA shall cease to exist" and "all functions, powers, duties, and obligations and all real and personal property, personnel (other than members of the Committee), funds, and records" of the NACA were to be transferred to NASA. But, he explained, he preferred to think of it differently: "I would like to say, and I believe that I am being very realistic and very accurate when I do, that what will happen September 30 is a sign [15] of metamorphosis [It is] an indication of the changes that will occur as we develop our capacity to handle the bigger job that is ahead."19

The bigger job was outlined in the Space Act, which he encouraged all NACA employees to take the time to read, at least its first few pages. The job included the "expansion of human knowledge about space ... development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments and man through space . . . long-range studies of the benefits of using aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes ... preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology." Glennan also outlined the metamorphosis. The NACA's vital function, research into the problems of atmospheric flight, would now become "only one part of NASA's activities." To accomplish the goals set out in the Space Act, NASA would have to add "new and extremely able people" to its staff; administer "substantial programs of research and development and procurement with others on a contract basis"; spend "large amounts of money outside the agency by contracts with scientific and educational institutions and with industry"; use military facilities "such as the launching pads at Cape Canaveral"; and operate satellite-tracking stations around the world. All this and more had to be done and quickly in preparation for a manned flight into space and exploration into the Solar System. 20

Finally, Glennan tried to end his message on a high note by quoting from a speech that Lyndon Johnson made in August during the Senate confirmation hearings of the top two NASA officials:


There are no blueprints or roadmaps which clearly mark out the course. The limits of our job are no less than the limits of the universe. And those are limits which can be stated but are virtually impossible to describe. In a series, the course of the new Agency can be compared to the voyage of Columbus to the New World. The only difference is that Columbus with his charts drawn entirely from imagination had a better idea of his destination than we can possibly have when we step into outer space.21


Most NACA employees filing out of the base theater felt positive and excited about what they had heard, but a few cynics might have wondered out loud about that last reference to Columbus: "Wasn't he headed for China? And didn't he believe to his dying day that he had landed in Asia?" Hopefully, NASA had a better idea of its destination and would know where it was when it got there.


Air versus Space


NACA explorers, unlike Columbus, had a good idea of where they were doing. They were going into the air faster, farther, higher, and more efficiently in a modern engineering marvel that their systematic research into....



NACA test pilot Paul King, 1925.

In this 1925 photo, NACA pilot Paul King, donned in a furlined leather flight suit with oxygen facepiece, is ready to test a Vought VE-7.


....aeronautics over the last 43 years had helped to make possible. Aeronautics and the NACA had grown up together; the business of the NACA for its entire existence had been to see that American aeronautics continued to progress. For NACA veterans who took Glennan's advice and read the Space Act of 1958, the time when the airways had been ruled by frail wooden biplanes covered with fabric, braced by wires, powered by heavy water-cooled engines, and driven by hand-carved wooden propellers did not seem so long ago. When 20-year-old Floyd Thompson served as a mechanic in Pensacola with the U.S. Navy's first torpedo squadron in 1918, the navy's fastest aircraft, an R6L biplane amphibian, had a top speed of 110 knots and a fuel system with a windmill on the outside to pump fuel up to an overhead gravity tank. When flight research operations began at NACA Langley a year later, NACA researchers hardly knew the principles of aeronautical engineering. Airplane design was still a largely intuitive and empirical practice, thus requiring bold speculation and risk taking. In 1920 the Langley staff copied the design of an existing wind tunnel at the British [17] National Physical Laboratory to fashion their Wind Tunnel No. 1 because no one at the NACA knew how to design a wind tunnel. 22

In the decades that followed, the NACA designed more wind tunnels than staff members could count (many of them unique facilities) and authored more reports on aeronautical technology than any other single institution in the world.23 With the aerodynamic information that these tunnels and technical reports provided, American universities educated most of the country's aeronautical engineers, and U.S. industry became the world leader in the manufacture of aircraft. By NASA's first day, the NACA had helped to advance aeronautics far beyond the primitive state of flight at the end of World War I. Commercial jet airliners were beginning to fly passengers comfortably around the world in pressurized cabins. Sleek military jets streaked across the skies at speeds in excess of Mach 1, greater than the speed of sound. In fact, two McDonnell F-101A supersonic jet fighters were being made ready in the hangar for further flight testing. (The F-101A was nicknamed "Voodoo" but known to enthusiasts its the "One-O-Wonder.") Langley acoustics specialists Domenic Maglieri, Harvey Hubbard, and Donald Lansing were taking ground measurements of the shock-wave noise produced by one of the F-101As in level flight at speeds up to Mach 1.4 and altitudes up to 45,000 feet. A team of engineers and technicians supervised by Langley Assistant Director Hartley "Buster" Seaule, the NACA Research Airplane Project (RAP) leader, was evaluating several control systems for the North American XB-70 Valkyrie, a gigantic high-altitude, delta-winged bomber of some 550,000 pounds to be built of titanium and stainless steel and capable of flying to Mach 3. 24

As the federal agency responsible for the progress of the nation's aviation technology, the NACA had enough to do without getting involved in what the public considered "Buck Rogers stuff."*** During the first four decades of Langley's operation, the idea of working to promote the immediate achievement of spaceflight had been too ridiculous for consideration. Into the 1940s, NACA researchers were not certain that rockets and missiles were a part of aeronautics. Langley veteran Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. (the "C" stood for "Columbus"), who later became famous as "The Voice of Project Mercury,' and the director of NASA's manned spaceflight operations at Mission Control in Houston, remembers that before the late 1950s "space" was a dirty word: "[It] wasn't even allowed in the NACA library. The prevailing NACA attitude was that if it was anything that had to do with space that didn't have anything to do with airplanes, [then] why were we....




Variable-Density Wind Tunnel, 1922.

In this photo taken on 15 March 1922, NACA researchers conduct tests on airfoils in the Variable-Density tunnel, a revolutionary new test chamber that permitted, for the first time anywhere in the world, aerodynamic testing at approximately full-scale conditions L-3310.


Bell P-59 Peashooter in Full-Scale Tunnel, 1944.

Drag-cleanup testing of America's first jet airplane, the Bell P-59, is conducted in the Full-Scale Tunnel, May 1944. L-37,931.


[19] ...working on it?"25 One Langley veteran, Ira H. Abbott, recalled that the NACA stood "as much chance of injecting itself into space activities in any real way as an icicle had in a rocket combustion chamber." In the early 1950s, Abbott had mentioned the possibility of manned spaceflight to a House subcommittee, and one of the congressmen scornfully accused him of talking "science fiction." 26

Nevertheless, by the early 1950s, the NACA had become seriously involved in the study of rockets, missiles, and the potential of spaceflight; all of these topics related to aeronautics. Anything that concerned the science and technology of flight, whether it be in the atmosphere or beyond, eventually became an interest of the NACA. In the months following Sputnik, NACA leaders tried to capitalize on the agency's research into spaceflight to justify a central role in whatever space program came into existence. Acting prudently on behalf of their institution, the NACA Langley management and most staff members did everything possible to convince everyone concerned, including the new NASA administrator, T. Keith Glennan, that the old NACA laboratory could do and already was doing a great deal more than playing with airplanes.

For example, in January 1958, only four months after the launching of Sputnik l, a special Langley committee, surveying current and pending projects, documented the NACA's transition to space research. Chairing the committee was Langley Assistant Director Robert R. Gilruth, the future head of Project Mercury, America's first manned space program. Also serving on this committee were Eugene Draley, head of the laboratory's Full-Scale Research Division (and soon to succeed Robert R. Gilruth as assistant director for the Dynamic Loads, Pilotless Aircraft Research, and Structures Research Divisions); John V. Becker, chief of Langley's Compressibility Research Division; and Charles J. Donlan, technical assistant to Associate Director Thompson. The in-house review covered the activities of all 11 Langley research divisions during fiscal years 1955 and 1957, as well as projected activities for fiscal year 1959. Two tables of numbers accompanied the committee's final report to Director Reid, and the more important of the two indicated that the "research effort" in the fields of hypersonics and spaceflight should increase from about 11 percent in 1955 to 54 percent in 1959; however, it was unclear what these percentages actually meant in terms of money and personnel hours. In fact, Langley management derived these percentages from hours spent on projects in the three research directorates.

According to the review, the two most important fields of application were satellites and spacecraft, and ballistic missiles. Efforts in these areas were to rise from less than 1 percent to 16 percent and from 3 percent to 14 percent, respectively. In the words of the committee members, "all research divisions are adjusting and reorienting manpower, curtailing work in areas of lesser importance [and] continually studying and developing the special facilities needed to attack these problems," and each division had been doing [20] so for some time. "The ability to reorient the Laboratory's efforts to the extent shown in the brief time period considered," the report concluded, "is due to a considerable extent to active planning for a number of these [space related] fields during recent years."27

Langley senior management knew that these figures were authentic. The transition to space was happening at Langley, and it had been happening there even before Sputnik. Senior management also knew that more than a little finagling was done to get the space numbers up as high as possible, because they were doing the finagling. What was applicable to "space" and what was applicable to "aeronautics" depended on how they defined the research programs and divided the disciplines; to differentiate was splitting hairs. The Gilruth committee discovered, in January 1958, that much of the work at the laboratory, initially instigated to support what the NACA had always called the "aeronautics program," could in fact be conveniently reclassified as space research. In addition, Langley was working on many projects that honestly involved both aeronautics and space (truly "aerospace" research), yet could be classified as one or the other depending on what the center desired to emphasize.28 In the post-Sputnik era of national debate over the makeup of a new space agency, now was unquestionably the time to emphasize space, an emphasis on which Langley's future would depend.

However, almost no one at Langley on the first day of NASA would have thought that the time had come to abandon the quest for improved aeronautical performance. Many great technological advances remained to be achieved in aeronautics: greater speeds, bigger airplanes, and superior flight efficiencies. Already in flight were radically new aircraft like Lockheed's supersonic F-104 Starfighter, the still-secret U-2 strategic reconnaissance "spy plane," and Convair's B-58 delta-winged bomber, which was capable of Mach 2. On the horizon were important developments, such as new helicopter applications, tilt wing, and other innovative vertical and short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) capabilities. Additionally, new high-performance wings with unusual degrees of backward and even forward sweep were being designed at Langley and elsewhere. One of the wings of the future would probably have some form of variable sweep, like those Langley's foremost expert on high-speed aerodynamics, John Stack, had seen on a model of the arrow-winged Swallow aircraft in England. This wing would no doubt be part of a commercial supersonic transport (SST) that before too long would be taking airline passengers from New York to London or Paris in a few hours.29 Even more dear to the heart of some aerospace enthusiasts was the first of the next generation of research airplanes, North American Aviation's rocket-powered X-15, designed for the exploration of the hypersonic speed regime up to Mach 6, as well as the hypersonic boost-glider program, known as Project Dyna-Soar, sponsored jointly by the U.S. Air Force and NASA. In one of these "envelopes," many NACA/NASA engineers felt, an American might first fly into space.30



Swallow arrow-wing model in 16-Foot Transonic Tunnel, 1959.

A model of the Swallow arrow-wing aircraft is tested in the 16-Foot Transonic Tunnel in June 1959. The British hoped that a research airplane derived from the Swallow configuration would be the progenitor of a commercial SST. L-59-3817


X-15 model in 7 x 10-Foot High-Speed Tunnel, 1958.

In 1958 two Langley researchers install a one-tenth scale model of the X-15 rocket plane in the Langley 7 x 10-Foot High-Speed Tunnel to study its spin characteristics. L-58-2951


[22] Clearly, now was no time to take a hiatus from aeronautics. Although many congressional leaders and probably even the American people as a whole forgot the second word in the National Aeronautics and Space Act, calling it "the Space Act," most of the research staff at Langley took a different view. As preliminary drafts of the Space Act made their way to the NACA laboratory for review in the spring and early summer of 1958, aeronautically oriented staff members like RAP leader Hartley Soule and supersonics pioneer John Stack read them and said to one another, "Well, we're not doing that. Let those guys [up in Washington] go ahead and write it up, [but] we'll just [keep doing] what's necessary and get on with the program." Unlike the ardent space buffs, these men read the Space Act to mean that they "were supposed to pick up the space program" in addition to aeronautics not that they "were supposed to get out of aeronautics."31

A few days after passage of the Space Act, U.S. Army representatives visited Langley to find out who was going to take care of their aircraft engine problems now that the NACA was about to be dissolved in favor of a space agency. The surprised Langley people answered, "Well, we are! We're here and we know what we are doing, and under NASA, we will just keep doing it."32 That literal view of the Space Act calmed the military visitors and reassured their hosts. If Langley people had known that the national commitment to space was going to. "backburner" their traditionally strong aeronautical programs for years to come, they might not have responded so glibly to questions about the changeover.

In the following years, the aeronautics effort at Langley decreased significantly; at its lowest level, it shrank to about 25 percent of the center's total labor hours. Nonetheless, aeronautics was never allowed to die at Langley. Even during the rushed days of the Apollo lunar landing program in the 1960s, fruitful aeronautical programs quietly proceeded behind the scenes. Langley managed to retain a dedicated cadre of aeronautical people even when NASA recruited talent primarily in support of the space program. But for John Stack, Hartley Soule, and likewise air-minded NACA veterans, aeronautical research would often seem nearly forgotten at Langley.


The Public Eye


Most of those working in aviation knew about the NACA through exposure to NACA reports and articles concerning NACA research in aeronautical engineering magazines and other trade journals. But none of the NACA's operations had high public profiles, not even at the local level. Until 1958 most Americans knew nothing about the NACA. Before World War II, some congressmen did not know it existed. Even the people near Langley Field ignored the place. As Langley engineer and Hampton native Caldwell (pronounced Cad-well) Johnson remembers, "It [the NACA} wasn't like NASA. The press didn't care about it- to them it was a dull bunch [23] of gray buildings with gray people who worked with slide rules and wrote long equations on the board." Brain-busters like that were better-off left alone.33 Ironically, throughout its entire history, the only time the NACA was a high-profile agency was after Eisenhower had selected it as the nucleus for NASA.

At times the NACA's obscurity put the agency at a disadvantage. The NACA could not rely on the strength of favorable public opinion in its campaigns for appropriations; such battles had to be fought and won quietly in private conferences in hallways or smoke filled rooms with admirals, generals, and congressmen These "gold-braided personages" made the case for the NACA to Congress, when it was necessary for a case to be made.

Handling much of this delicate politicking from 1919 until his retirement in 1947 was the NACA's shrewd, cigar-smoking director of research, "Doc" Lewis (1892-1948). Although the gregarious Lewis and his successor, the quieter and scientifically sharper Dr. Hugh Dryden, usually acquired the necessary backing for NACA projects, they experienced many close calls. The closest one came in December 1932 when President Herbert Hoover, looking to reduce expenditures and increase efficiency in government, had ordered the NACA abolished and most of its resources handed over to the Bureau of Standards. However, House Democrats, anticipating the first term of Franklin D. Roosevelt, overrode the lame-duck executive order, and the NACA survived.34

On balance, however, the advantages of the NACA's invisibility outweighed the few disadvantages. It certainly benefited the researchers; most of them thought NACA Langley was a wonderful place to work and "just a splendid organization."35 Although administrative policies and bureaucratic guidelines involving anything related to the laboratory's communication with the outside world (such as mail, telephone calls, and technical reports) were rather prescriptive, considerable leniency existed in the performance of in-house research. Individuals could follow their own ideas quite far without formal approval from superiors. Any scheme that survived peer discussion and won the approval of the research section was likely to be implemented. If funding was not formally available to build a given wind-tunnel model, flight instrument, minor test facility component, or the like, employees were usually able to "bootleg" what they needed from resources appropriated to approved projects. As long as the initiative offered something promising, did not cost too much, and did not have the potential to get the NACA into real trouble, NACA managers rarely complained or put tight reins on the researchers. Within the laboratory, few barriers limited innovation and the free dissemination of knowledge; the young engineers could discuss their work comfortably with everyone from the technicians in the shops to the division chief.36

Such freedoms existed because neither the NACA's own management, other government bureaucrats, nor newspaper or magazine journalists (or the American people as a whole) spent much time looking over the shoulders [24] of NACA researchers. The NACA shared what it did with major clients; the how was kept more or less within the NACA itself. Moreover, almost none of NACA Langley's research work involved contracts with outsiders; everything was accomplished in-house. As Caldwell Johnson has noted about the NACA, "It had the best wind tunnels, the best model-builders, the best technicians, the most rigorous standards." Nothing gave Langley people more pride than being a part of such an autonomous organization.37

If Langley engineers had cultivated any public image before NASA, it had been that of the "NACA Nuts." All the local hardware salesmen and auto dealers recognized them a mile away, and if it had not been for the federal paychecks that the NACA folks brought to the local economy, the natives would have dreaded to see them coming. Not only were most NACA Nuts overeducated Yankees, they were brilliant technical types who wanted to know the revolutions per minute (rpm) of their vacuum sweepers and ordered lumber cut to the sixteenth of an inch. Funny stories about their eccentricities abounded, leading everyone from Yorktown to Newport News to think that anyone from the NACA had to be either a weirdo or a screwball.

The truth was that most locals in those days had not the faintest idea what the NACA people did. Few residents even distinguished the NACA from the army (and later the air force) at Langley Field. Langley was all about flying and noisy airplanes that woke residents before their alarm clocks went off. But the people at the NACA were not concerned about the confusion. Being grouped with the soldiers in uniform was often useful camouflage. This camouflage was especially helpful during World War II when hard feelings were expressed by local families who saw their boys going off to war while NACA men were able to stay put because of a special deal made between the NACA and the Selective Service System.38

In 1958 the natives still poked fun at the NACA Nuts, but they did so in a more friendly way. Previously, a friction similar to that felt typically between university "town and gown" had determined much about the Hampton-Langley relationship. The softening of hard feelings between locals and the NACA was due in large part to the marriage of many Langley engineers to area women and their subsequent assimilation into local society. For instance, the wife of Langley's number two man in 1958, Associate Director Floyd Thompson, was Jean Geggie, a native Hamptonian whose father carved wooden figureheads for ships at the nearby Newport News shipyard.

By the 1950s, NACA employees had become pillars of the community. Thompson himself had been a member of the Hampton Rotary Club for several years and had served on the board of directors of the local "Dixie General" hospital. (In the late 1960s, partly through Thompson's efforts, the hospital board voted to drop the racially inflammatory name "Dixie" and renamed the hospital Hampton General.) Furthermore, in the turbulent and scary weeks following the first Soviet space launches, the scientists and engineers "over at Langley Field" became reassuring figures. Here, right in their midst, many locals felt, were experts who could explain the meaning of....



Aerial photo of Langley, 1950.

The 1950 aerial photo of Langley shows the original East Area along the Back River (bottom) and the West Area, constructed during World War II (top). L-78,005.


...the foreign objects orbiting ominously overhead. Interviewed for stories by the local newspapers, NACA personnel discussed the progress of American space efforts and helped calm local hysteria. Hamptonians developed greater appreciation for the technical talents of Langley personnel, and the once tepid feelings about the NACA warmed.

With the transition to NASA, the public spotlight would inevitably shine on Langley Personnel would soon figure out that the NACA attitude toward public relations had to change. In the old days, most NACA staff members could have cared less about public opinion. They only cared about the opinion of generals, congressmen, and other powerful people who could influence the budget and appropriation processes. With NASA, however, things had to be different. Beginning the day after the launch of Sputnik 1, researchers had to make their case before a much more concerned public. Without hesitating, they got right to it.


* Although foreigners tended to pronounce it as a two syllable word, "Nacka," within the United States the organization was a ways known by its four individual letters, "the N-A-C-A. " Veterans of the NACA assumed that the same would be true for NASA. Into the 1990s, NACA veterans could usually be identified by the way they treated the NASA acronym as individual letters.

** In 1945 civil service requirements had forced the NACA to change the old title to director. No one liked the change, certainly not Langley's top man, Henry Reid, who had been engineer-in-charge for 22 years, since 1926. The old title had made it clear that an engineer, not a scientist, headed the organization.

*** Younger readers may need to know that suck Rogers was a science-fantasy comic strip created by Dick Calkins around 1930; the comic strip remained popular until it was terminated in the 1960s. In the 1950s, it also became a popular television "space opera." As such, "Buck Rogers," significantly influenced American popular culture's attitudes about rocketry and space travel (In the late 1970s, another TV show, "Buck Rogers in the 21st Century", went on the air; however, the updated character did not bring on the similar craze.)

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