[xv] James R. Hansen has impeccable credentials as a thorough, perceptive investigator and writer of technological history. His accomplishments in the field are outstanding, as exemplified by his book Engineer in Charge, which was published in 1987. This book presents a careful analysis of the history of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) from its formation in 1917 to the demise of the NACA in October 1958 when this prestigious organization became the centerpiece of the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Whereas the NACA was concerned primarily with aeronautical research conducted by government employees in its own laboratories, NASA would have a much broader charter that included not only aeronautical and space research but also the development and operation of various types of space vehicles, including manned vehicles. Within this new organization, the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory became the Langley Research Center of NASA.

As a part of NASA, Langley underwent many profound changes in program content, organization and management, and areas of personnel expertise. Although aeronautical research continued in the NASA era, research in support of such projects as Echo, Scout, Mercury, Apollo, and the Space Shuttle occupied a larger percentage of the Langley research effort as the years passed. In addition, Langley forged into new fields by assuming management responsibility for such large space projects as Lunar Orbiter and Viking. This responsibility involved major contract activities and support of in-house research. New research facilities, such as large vacuum tanks and high-speed and high-temperature air jets capable of simulating atmospheric entry from space, were developed and constructed.

Although many new personnel were eventually hired, large numbers of the existing Langley complement easily made the transition to space related research and thus showed that a proficient research professional could shift without too much difficulty into new fields of technical endeavor. For example, in orbital mechanics and space rendezvous, individuals who had previously worked in such diverse disciplines as theoretical aerodynamics, high-speed propellers, and aeroelasticity quickly became expert and assumed roles of national leadership. A well-known case is found in the activities of Dr. John C. Houbolt, an expert in aeroelasticity and dynamic loads, who became a leading proponent-according to Hansen, perhaps the key proponent-of Lunar Orbit Rendezvous as the preferred means of [xvi] accomplishing the Apollo lunar landing mission. This technique, of course, turned out to be incredibly successful.

A very unsettling aspect of the transition of Langley in the 1958-1975 period was the replacement of the director, longtime Langley engineer Floyd L. Thompson, with Edgar M. Cortright. Cortright came from NASA headquarters and had had prior research experience at the NACA Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory (later designated as the NASA Lewis Research Center). In the Cortright regime, along with many significant changes m center organization and management, there came a closer, and many thought an undesirable, control of Langley programs by a centralized NASA management.

James Hansen's new book, Spaceflight Revolution, covers the turbulent seventeen-year period from 1958-1975 in great and interesting detail. With his usual thoroughness, Hansen has based this book on careful analysis of hundreds of written records, both published and unpublished, as well as on numerous personal interviews with many of the key individuals involved in the great transition at Langley. One Langley activity that was intentionally omitted from this study is aeronautical research which, as the author mentions, will hopefully be covered in a separate book. Spaceflight Revolution is a very complete and well-researched exposition and interpretation of a period of great change at the Langley Research Center. The main events and trends are clearly and succinctly presented. Although many who worked for Langley during the period covered may not agree entirely with some of Hansen's interpretations and conclusions, sufficient information is given in the text, references, and notes to permit the reader to evaluate the work. In any event, anyone who ever worked for Langley or NACA/NASA or who has any interest in the history of technology will find the book fascinating and thought provoking. In addition, anyone interested in the present and the future of NASA and the American space program will want to pay close attention to the insights found in his epilogue. Readers will see that Jim Hansen has again demonstrated his great abilities as a historian, and he deserves a well-earned "Thank you" for creating what will no doubt prove to be an enduring classic.


November 1994
Laurence K. Loftin, Jr.
Director for Aeronautics (Retired) NASA Langley Research Center

previous pageindexnext page