The facility now known as Langley Research Center was founded under NACA in 1917, making it the first civilian aeronautical laboratory in the United States. Construction began near Hampton, Virginia at Langley Field later that year. The current site comprises close to 800 acres of land in the Hampton area, including a wide array of wind tunnels and other aircraft test facilities.
Construction began on Langley Field in 1917, but the chaos of mobilizing for war, the challenges of construction on marshy ground, and the effects of the influenza epidemic combined to make progress slow in completing the new facilities. In April of 1920, President Wilson concurred with NACA's suggestion that the facility be named "Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory" in honor of Dr. Samuel P. Langley (1834-1906), the third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and the facility was officially dedicated 11 June 1920. Until the establishment of Ames and Lewis (Now Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field) in the 1940s, Langley was NACA's only aeronautics research facility.
Langley Laboratory’s first wind tunnel was a replica of a 10-year old British design that became operational in June 1920. The staff quickly discovered that data from the tunnel did not accurately reflect aircraft flight experiences. Langley staff then began a tradition of designing and operating wind tunnels with a goal of accurately modeling flight conditions. Langley’s second tunnel was designed by Dr. Max Munk, a theoretician, who proposed a tunnel inside a pressure vessel that would allow the density to be varied. The resulting Variable Density Tunnel (VDT) was installed at the Laboratory in 1922 and was the first of its kind in the world. The VDT was used to test several series of air foils. The results of the airfoil series tests were published in a technical report that became industry design standard. The tunnel has been retired and is now a National Historic Landmark. Langley researchers next turned their talents to designing a larger tunnel to learn more about the interaction of aircraft and their propellers. The Propeller Research Tunnel, operational in 1927, had a 20-ft test section that could hold a full-size aircraft fuselage of the time. Research from this tunnel resulted in an engine cowling that streamlined air flow over aircraft engines and directed air flow around the engine for cooling. In 1929, Langley received its first Collier Trophy for the design of the NACA Cowling.
In 1931, work was completed on what was then the world’s largest wind tunnel with a 30-ft by 60-ft test section, known as the Langley Full Scale Tunnel. Designed by Langley staff, the tunnel could study entire full-sized aircraft of the time and was instrumental in doing drag clean-up studies for nearly every U.S. Fighter aircraft design in the World War II era. The Full Scale Tunnel went on to test the Mercury space capsule, the lunar lander test vehicle, F-16, concepts for super sonic transports, and the space shuttle. This tunnel was also designated a National Historic Landmark, but has since been declared obsolete and demolished.
In 1948, the center's name was changed from Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory to simply Langley Aeronautical Laboratory. On 1 October 1958 the laboratory, as a NACA facility, became a component of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and was officially renamed "Langley Research Center."
As aircraft began flying faster, it was noted that flight around the speed of sound or in the transonic range had unique challenges. Wind tunnels designed to study subsonic flight also had challenges in modeling transonic flight. Langley researchers developed a concept to have longitudinal slots installed in wind tunnel test sections to help smooth the flow in the transonic speed range. First installed in the 16-Ft Transonic Tunnel in December 1950, the concept was proven in the many tests conducted there. The slotted wind tunnel throat design was also installed in the 8-ft High-Speed Tunnel, where Richard Whitcomb tested is Area Rule for design of transonic aircraft. The 8-ft High-Speed Tunnel is also a National Historic Landmark, but was declared obsolete and dismantled. Langley’s newest wind tunnel innovation is the National Transonic Facility, which uses liquid nitrogen to more closely model fight conditions and provides some of the world’s most accurate wind tunnel data. Since the tunnel began operations in the early 1980’s, it has provided data for Boeing 777 and 767, the space shuttle launch configuration, business jet concepts, and Orion launch abort system.
As NASA began to grapple with the challenges of putting people in space, Langley contributed to the effort. Members of Langley’s Pilotless Aircraft Research Division, formed after World War II to learn more about transonic flight, were tapped to become members of the Space Task Group. The Space Task Group, situated at Langley until a move to Houston in the early 1960s, set about planning the United States’ early space program. To learn more about flying the last 150 feet to the lunar surface, Langley staff designed the Lunar Landing Facility. The facility, a 250-ft high by 400-ft long truss-work gantry with a lunar lander that was suspended by a cabling system that supported all but 1/6 of the lander’s weight, was used to train all Apollo astronauts to land on the moon. When the Apollo Program wound down, the facility was converted to suspend instrumented full-size aircraft and helicopters, which were released to crash conditions to improve aircraft crash worthiness. With the development of the Orion concept, the facility was used to understand the stresses on landing Orion first on soil and with the addition of a hydro impact basin, to understand a water landing. This facility was also designated as a National Historic Landmark. In the mid-1960’s Langley designed a Rendezvous and Docking Simulator to train Gemini and Apollo astronauts. The system suspended a full size Gemini and later Apollo capsule from the ceiling of the Langley Research Hangar. A full-size docking Agena spacecraft served as the target for Gemini. The astronauts “flew” the capsule to the target in the darkened hangar. The Rendezvous and Docking Simulator is also a National Historic Landmark. The simulator has since been dismantled, but the suspension system remains in the ceiling of the hangar.
Langley Research Center today supports NASA goals for aeronautics exploration, science and space technology, with a variety of flight simulators, wind tunnels, labs, and computational software.
Additional resources about Langley Research Center:
Hansen, James R. Engineer in Charge: A History of the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, 1917-1958. NASA SP-4305, 1987.
Hansen, James R. Spaceflight Revolution: NASA Langley Research Center from Sputnik to Apollo. NASA SP-4308, 1995.
Schultz, James. Crafting Flight: Aircraft Pioneers and the Contributions of the Men and Women of NASA Langley Research Center. NASA SP-2003-4316, 2003.
Steve Garber, NASA History Web Curator
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