The NACA at 100


[NARRATOR]
HI, I’M BILL BARRY, NASA’S CHIEF HISTORIAN. WE’RE HERE IN THE NASA HEADQUARTERS HISTORICAL
REFERENCE COLLECTION – A PLACE WHERE WE MAINTAIN AN ARCHIVE OF DOCUMENTS, RECORDS,
AND REFERENCE BOOKS THAT RESEARCHERS CAN USE AND THAT WE USE TO ANSWER ALL SORTS OF QUESTIONS. IN ADDITION TO NASA RECORDS, WE ALSO HAVE
RECORDS FROM THE NATIONAL ADVISORY COMMITTEE FOR AERONAUTICS – THE NACA. WE’VE BEEN
PRETTY BUSY HERE FOR THE LAST YEAR GETTING READY TO MARK THE CENTENNIAL OF THE
CREATION OF THE NACA. BUT THE IMPORTANCE OF THE NACA IS NOT JUST A MATTER OF OLD BOOKS
AND DUSTY RECORDS – THE STORY OF THE N-A-C-A IS
ONE OF INCREDIBLY DEDICATED PEOPLE PUSHING THE CUTTING EDGE OF NEW TECHNOLOGIES AND DOING
THAT IN NEW AND CREATIVE WAYS. IT HAD SUCH A REVOLUTIONARY IMPACT ON OUR WORLD THAT WE
HARDLY NOTICE IT THESE DAYS. BUT, YOU MIGHT NOT HAVE GUESSED THIS FROM ITS MODEST BEGINNINGS.
WITH THE PASSAGE OF THE NAVAL APPROPRIATIONS ACT ON MARCH 3, 1915, THE NACA CAME INTO EXISTENCE.
IT’S MISSION: TO SUPERVISE AND DIRECT THE SCIENTIFIC STUDY OF THE PROBLEMS OF FLIGHT
WITH 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. ORIGINALLY THE COMMITTEE WAS JUST THAT – A
12 MEMBER GROUP APPOINTED FROM THE MILITARY AND OTHER PARTS OF THE GOVERNMENT, AS WELL
AS ACADEMIA AND INDUSTRY EXPERTS. ALTHOUGH IT WOULD BE 2 YEARS BEFORE THE UNITED
STATES JOINED THE CONFLICT, IN 1915 WAR WAS ALREADY RAGING ACROSS EUROPE AND GROWING ON
THE OCEANS. WAR HAD ALSO MOVED INTO THE AIR… IT WAS JUST ABOUT A DOZEN YEARS SINCE THE
WRIGHT BROTHERS FIRST SUCCESSFUL FLIGHTS AT KITTY HAWK. BUT, MUCH TO OUR SURPRISE, THE
UNITED STATES FOUND ITSELF TO BE FAR BEHIND EUROPE IN AERONAUTICS. HOW DID THAT HAPPEN? WELL, AFTER THE WRIGHTS
DEMONSTRATED THEIR FLYER IN FRANCE IN 1908 EUROPEAN GOVERNMENTS AND INDIVIDUALS BEGAN
TO INVEST MILLIONS IN AERONAUTICS RESEARCH. BY 1912 THE FRENCH GOVERNMENT WAS SPENDING
$6.4 MILLION DOLLARS ANNUALLY ON AIRCRAFT RESEARCH AND CONSTRUCTION. THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE
WASN’T FAR BEHIND THAT YEAR AT $5 MILLION. IN THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT SPENDING ON
AVIATION IN 1912 WAS ONLY $140,000. BY 1911 EVERY MAJOR COUNTRY IN EUROPE HAD
A GOVERNMENT FUNDED AERONAUTICS LABORATORY. AS A RESULT, BY THE START OF WORLD WAR I,
EUROPE WAS FAR AHEAD IN AIRCRAFT TECHNOLOGY AND EVEN SHEER NUMBERS OF MILITARY PLANES.
WHEN THE WAR STARTED THE FRENCH FIELDED 1,400 MILITARY AIRPLANES, GERMANY 1,000, IMPERIAL
RUSSIA 800, AND GREAT BRITAIN 400. THE US HAD JUST 23 MILITARY AIRCRAFT. THE UNITED STATES WAS CERTAINLY NOT AGAINST
TECHNOLOGY – AFTER ALL BY DECEMBER OF 1915 HENRY FORD HAD ROLLED HIS 1 MILLIONTH CAR
OFF THE ASSEMBLY LINE. SILENT FILMS WERE ALL THE RAGE – BUT BETWEEN THE WRIGHT BROTHER’S
PATENTS AND A LACK OF GOVERNMENT INTEREST, WE LAGGED FAR BEHIND EUROPE IN AERONAUTICS
– AND WOUND UP HAVING TO USE EUROPEAN AIRCRAFT WHEN WE ENTERED THE WAR. AT THE FIRST MEETING OF THE COMMITTEE ON APRIL
23, 1915, THEY SELECTED AN EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE TO MANAGE DAY-TO-DAY ISSUES. CHARLES WALCOTT,
SECRETARY OF THE SMITHSONIAN, WAS CHOSEN AS CHAIRMAN OF THE EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE. EVEN THOUGH THE COMMITTEE MEMBERS WERE NOT
PAID, THE MEAGER $5,000 BUDGET DID NOT GO VERY FAR. FOR THE MOST PART IT WENT TO PAY
RESEARCHERS IN ACADEMIA AND OTHER GOVERNMENT AGENCIES. THE COMMITTEE WOULD ISSUE A RESEARCH
AUTHORIZATION ON A TOPIC IT THOUGHT WAS OF INTEREST AND OTHERS WOULD DO THE WORK. EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN WALCOTT, AND
A GROUP OF OTHERS, HAD MUCH GREATER HOPES. WALCOTT MADE IT HIS BUSINESS TO PUSH FOR THE
CONSTRUCTION OF NACA RESEARCH FACILITIES. IT WAS AN UPHILL STRUGGLE – WITH PRESIDENT
WILSON HIMSELF OPPOSED TO IT, BUT CONGRESS VOTED IN FAVOR OF ADDING $85,000 TO THE NACA
BUDGET FOR A LABORATORY IN 1916 AND WORK ON IT FINALLY BEGAN IN 1917. IT WAS NAMED IN
HONOR OF WALCOTT’S PREDECESSOR AS SECRETARY OF THE SMITHSONIAN, THE LANGLEY MEMORIAL AERONAUTICAL
LABORATORY AND IT ROSE SLOWLY NEAR HAMPTON, VIRGINIA. EVENTUALLY THE NACA WOULD GROW TO A TOTAL
OF 3 MAJOR LABORATORIES AND 2 MAJOR TEST FACILITIES. JUST BEFORE WORLD WAR II AMES RESEARCH CENTER
WAS BUILT IN CALIFORNIA’S BAY AREA. THIS WAS QUICKLY FOLLOWED BY THE AIRCRAFT ENGINE
RESEARCH LABORATORY IN CLEVELAND OHIO. AFTER THE WAR, IT WAS RENAMED IN HONOR OF THE LATE
NACA DIRECTOR OF RESEARCH GEORGE LEWIS – THE LEWIS LABORATORY. IT HAS SINCE BEEN RENAMED
IN HONOR OF OHIO NATIVE JOHN GLENN. AFTER THE WAR THE NACA ALSO ESTABLISHED A
TEST FACILITY AT WALLOPS ISLAND, VIRGINIA, AND A HIGH SPEED FLIGHT TEST FACILITY IN THE
HIGH DESERT OF CALIFORNIA – NOW KNOWN AS THE
ARMSTRONG FLIGHT RESEARCH CENTER. THESE FACILITIES, AND THE AMAZING PEOPLE WHO
WORKED AT THEM, WERE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY BREAKTHROUGHS IN AERONAUTICS AND SPACE. BUT
FOR THE 200 HUNDRED OR SO PEOPLE THAT WORKED AT LANGLEY, the FIRST BIG BREAKTHROUGH CAME
IN THE LATE 1920S. USING WHAT WAS THEN THE WORLD’S LARGEST
WIND TUNNEL, AND ONE DESIGNED TO STUDY PROPELLERS, NACA RESEARCHERS LED BY FRED WEICK DISCOVERED
THAT WRAPPING AIRPLANE ENGINES IN A PROPERLY SHAPED METAL COWLING NOT ONLY GREATLY REDUCED
THE DRAG ON THE AIRPLANE, BUT IT ACTUALLY IMPROVED ENGINE COOLING. UP TO THAT POINT
AIRPLANE ENGINES HAD USUALLY BEEN FULLY EXPOSED, IN THE BELIEF THAT THIS WAS THE ONLY WAY TO
KEEP THEM FROM OVERHEATING. THIS FINDING HAD HUGE EFFECTS – INCREASING
THE SPEED AND RANGE OF AIRCRAFT, AT AN EXTREMELY SMALL COST TO MANUFACTURERS. IN 1929 THE NACA
WAS AWARDED THE FIRST OF 5 COLLIER TROPHIES – AN AWARD PRESENTED FOR THE GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT
IN AERONAUTICS EACH YEAR. IT ALSO LED TO A SIGNFICANT BUDGET INCREASE FOR THE NACA WHICH
ALLOWED IT TO BUILD MANY MORE FACILITIES AT LANGLEY. THE NACA IS PROBABLY BEST KNOWN FOR ITS MANY
WIND TUNNELS – ONES THAT COULD SIMULATE VARIOUS SPEEDS AND ALTITUDES AND THAT RANGED
FROM SMALL MODELS TO FULL SIZE AIRPLANES. BUT THE NACA ALSO USED TOW TANKS TO STUDY
AMPHIBIOUS AND FLOAT PLANES. THE NACA ALSO PIONEERED THE FIELD OF SYSTEMATIC
FLIGHT RESEARCH. STARTING WITH A COUPLE OF BORROWED ARMY JN-4 JENNIES, NACA TECHNICIANS
DEVELOPED THE TOOLS AND EQUIPMENT NEEDED TO TAKE PRECISE MEASUREMENTS IN THE AIR – FREEING
THE RESEARCH PILOTS FROM HAVING TO TAKE HANDWRITTEN NOTES. THEY USED THIS EQUIPMENT TO STUDY THE
PERFORMANCE OF AIRFOILS – WINGS – AND ALSO THE STRUCTURE OF AIRPLANES, TO MAKE SURE
THEY DIDN’T BREAK UP UNDER THE STRESSES OF FLIGHT.
IN ESSENCE THE VERY SHAPE OF MODERN AIRCRAFT IS A RESULT OF THE RESEARCH DONE BY THE COMMITTEE. THE FRENCH CAUDRON G-4 WAS REPRESENTED THE
PEAK OF DESIGN IN 1915 – IT WAS A PLANE USED BY ALL OF THE ALLIES IN WORLD WAR I – INCLUDING
THE UNITED STATES. BUT IN ABOUT 2 DOZEN YEARS AIRPLANE DESIGN HAD CHANGED DRAMATICALLY – AND
TO THE SHAPE WE ALL RECOGNIZE NOW. THE METAL TUBULAR BODY, ENGINES MOUNTED ON THE FRONT
OF THE WINGS, A SINGLE WING, AND ONE THAT IS PLACED LOW DOWN TO THE BODY. ALL OF THESE
ELEMENTS WERE TESTED AND PROVEN BY NACA RESEARCH IN THE 1920’S AND 30’S. NACA SHARED THIS RESEARCH WITH THE WORLD AND
DID ITS WORK IN PARTNERSHIP WITH INDUSTRY. AS A RESULT, NACA RESEARCH WAS EMBEDDED IN
THE AIRPLANE AS WE KNOW IT. IT IS PART OF THE DNA OF THE AIRPLANE. IN FACT, NACA DESIGNED
WINGS WERE NOT ONLY ON US AIRCRAFT DURING WORLD WAR II, BUT ON ALLIED AIRCRAFT LIKE
THE BRITISH SPITFIRE, AND EVEN ENEMY AIRCRAFT LIKE THE GERMAN FOCKE WULF 190. IN ADDITION TO INNOVATIONS IN AIRCRAFT AND
RESEARCH, THE NACA ALSO BEGAN TO TRY NEW THINGS WITH ITS STAFF PRIOR TO WORLD WAR II. IN THE
MID-1930S THE NACA HIRED COMPUTERS TO DEAL WITH THE HUGE FLOW OF DATA COMING FROM ALL
OF THE WIND TUNNELS AND FLIGHT RESEARCH. THESE WEREN’T COMPUTERS LIKE WE THINK OF THEM
– THEY WERE WOMEN. INTERESTINGLY ENOUGH, AS LABOR SHORTAGES GREW DURING THE WAR, THE
NACA ALSO REACHED ACROSS THE RACIAL BARRIER AND HIRED AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN TO SERVE
AS COMPUTUERS. WHILE THIS WAS A SMALL STEP, IT REPRESENTED A MAJOR SHIFT WITH REPERCUSSIONS
THAT WOULD ECHO LONG AFTER. WORLD WAR II CHANGED LOTS OF THINGS – INCLUDING
THE PACE OF WORK AT THE NACA, AND THE KIND OF WORK BEING DONE AS WELL. VIRTUALLY EVERY
AIRCRAFT FLOWN BY THE UNITED STATES IN THE WAR WAS TESTED AND IMPROVED IN THE WIND TUNNELS
AT LANGLEY AND AMES. ENGINE PERFORMANCE AND RELIABILITY WAS ALSO RAISED TO NEW LEVELS
BY WORK IN CLEVELAND AT WHAT IS NOW GLENN RESEARCH CENTER. THE CUMULATIVE EFFECT OF
THIS WORK HAD A HUGE IMPACT ON THE COURSE OF WORLD WAR II AND GAVE THE ALLIES AN IMPORTANT
MARGIN IN ENSURING VICTORY IN THE AIR. AFTER THE CONCLUSION OF TWO WORLD WARS THE
JET AGE ARRIVED AND NACA WAS AT THE CUTTING EDGE OF THIS TECHNOLOGY WITH FLIGHT TEST,
IMPROVEMENTS AND DEVELOPMENT. THE NACA ESTABLISHED A NEW TYPE OF PARTNERSHIP
WITH THE AIR FORCE AND BELL AIRCRAFT TO BUILD A RESEARCH CRAFT AIMED AT ACHIEVING SUPERSONIC
FLIGHT. IN 1947, AIR FORCE PILOT CHUCK YEAGER WOULD BE THE FIRST PERSON TO FLY SUPERSONIC
IN THE BELL X-1. THIS WORK WON THE NACA (ALONG WITH THE AIR FORCE AND BELL) ITS THIRD COLLIER
TROPHY IN 1947. WITH WIND TUNNELS NOT YET ABLE TO OPERATE RELIABLY AT SUPERSONIC SPEEDS,
FLIGHT TEST BECAME A CRITICALLY IMPORTANT TOOL. THE NACA, OFTEN IN COLLABORATION WITH
THE MILITARY SERVICES AND INDUSTRY BUILT A SERIES OF EXPERIMENTAL OR “X” PLANES TO
FURTHER PUSH THE BOUNDARIES. THE BEST AND BRIGHTEST WERE TACKLING THESE
PROBLEMS AND MOVING FORWARDS TOWARDS CONQUERING THE HURDLES OF HIGH SPEED FLIGHT. BUT OTHER
NACA RESEARCHERS WERE TURNING THEIR MINDS TO THE EDGE OF SPACE AND BEYOND. EVEN IN THE
LATE 1940S, THE NACA WAS BECOMING A SPACE AGENCY… ONE OF THE MOST CRITICAL BREAKTHROUGHS IN
THAT SPACE RESEARCH WAS MADE BY HARVEY ALLEN. ONE OF THE LANGLEY CADRE THAT HAD HELPED SET
UP AMES RESEARCH CENTER IN 1940, ALLEN WAS CHIEF OF THE HIGH SPEED RESEARCH DIVISION
AT AMES BY 1945. IN THE SUMMER OF 1952, HE DEVELOPED THE BLUNT BODY CONCEPT. IT HAD LONG
BEEN ASSUMED THAT RE-ENTERING SPACECRAFT WOULD BE POINTED, LIKE ARTILLERY SHELLS. OR LIKE BUCK ROGERS SPACECRAFT OF THE 1930S. BUT, EARLY EXPERIMENTS WITH DESIGNS OF THIS
SORT PROVED DISASTROUS, AS RE-ENTRY VEHICLES WERE UNABLE TO SURVIVE THE
INTENSE HEAT. IN ANOTHER ONE OF THOSE COUNTERINTUITIVE NACA INSIGHTS, ALLEN PROPOSED THAT A BLUNT
SHAPE WOULD SET UP A SHOCK WAVE AHEAD OF ITSELF AND THEREFORE KEEP THE HEAT FROM REACHING
THE VEHICLE INSTEAD IT WOULD BE DISSIPATED ON THE SHOCKWAVE . HIS 1952 PAPER ON THIS PROVED QUITE CONTROVERSIAL,
BUT SINCE THE MILITARY WAS ALSO INTERESTED IN THIS QUESTION FOR BUILDING NUCLEAR MISSILE
WARHEADS THE WORK WAS CLASSIFIED AND NOT WELL KNOWN UNTIL THE LATE 1950S. NONETHELESS, ALLEN
AND HIS TEAM PROVED HIS THEORIES IN THE WIND TUNNELS AT AMES AND, IN THE PROCESS, DEFINED
THE SHAPE OF ALL SPACECRAFT THAT FOLLOWED. ALLEN’S BLUNT BODY WORK WAS NOT ONLY OBVIOUS
IN THE SPACE CAPSULES OF THE 1960S, BUT WAS ALSO INCORPORATED INTO THE X-15, VARIOUS LIFTING
BODIES, THE SPACE SHUTTLE AND TODAY WITH COMMERCIAL CREW VEHICLE DESIGNS OF THE CST-100 AND DRAGON
CAPSULES AND THE FUTURE CAPSULE FOR DEEP SPACE EXPLORATION NASA’S ORION. BETWEEN IT’S CREATION IN 1915 AND ITS RE-CREATION
AS NASA IN 1958, THE NACA’S SYSTEMATIC APPROACH TO “THE PROBLEMS OF FLIGHT” MADE FUNDAMENTAL
CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE WORLDWIDE DEVELOPMENT OF AERONAUTICS AND BEYOND. [DRYDEN]
“THE NACA IS IN THE PROCESS OF GREAT CHANGE. AS YOU KNOW, THE FINAL DECISIONS ARE BEING
MADE BY THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESSES OF OUR CHOSEN FORM OF GOVERNMENT THAT WILL RESULT IN THE
ESTABLISHMENT OF A NEW AGENCY, THE NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE AGENCY, BUILT AROUND
THE PRESENT NACA WITH RESPONSIBILITIES FOR THE NON-MILITARY ASPECTS OF SPACE ACTIVITIES.” [NARRATOR] THE CULTURE THAT IS THE NATIONAL AERONAUTICS
AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION IS BUILT UPON THE TENACITY AND EXPERTISE OF THOSE THAT TRANSITIONED
FROM NACA TO NASA IN 1958. IT’S A PART OF THE DRIVE BEHIND EVERYONE
WITH A PASSION FOR SPACE TRAVEL AND MODERN FLIGHT. DURING THE 50’S AND 60’S AERONAUTICS ENGINEERS
TRANSITIONED INTO SPACE FLIGHT DIRECTORS. WIND TUNNELS ONCE USED FOR AIRCRAFT TEST NOW
WERE BEING USED TO TEST BOTH ROCKETS AND AIRCRAFT. CENTERS OF AVIATION NOW BUILT, DESIGNED AND
TESTED SPACE CRAFT. CLOSE:
IN LESS THAN 70 YEARS WE AS A NATION AND A WORLD HAD GONE FROM A FLEDGLING MOTORIZED
FLIGHT ON A SAND DUNE IN NORTH CAROLINA , TO SUPER SONIC FLIGHT ABOVE CALIFORNIA’S MOJAVE
DESERT TO WALKING OUT OF A SPACECRAFT ONTO THE LUNAR SURFACE, THESE ACCOMPLISHMENT AND
MANY MORE REST VERY SQUARELY ON THE SHOULDERS OF THE MEN AND WOMEN OF THE NATIONAL ADVISORY
COMMITTEE FOR AERONAUTICS. NASA WAS FOUNDED IN OCTOBER OF 1958 BUT IT
WAS BORN ON THE THIRD OF MARCH 1915 THIS LEGACY OF EXCELLENCE CONTINUES IN NASA
WHERE NOT ONLY ARE WE ON A JOURNEY TO MARS BUILDING ON THE LEGACY OF NACA ENGINEERS BUT
WE CONTINUE TO PUSH THE BOUNDARIES OF PERFORMANCE AND EFFICIENCY IN THE AIR – NASA’S WITH
YOU WHEN YOU FLY. [GLENNAN] BUT NOW WE HAVE COME TO A NEW DAY. NACA IS
TO BECOME PART OF A NEW AGENCY, THE NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION. BUT,
AND THIS IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT BOTH TO YOU AND TO ME AS INDIVIDUALS AND TO THE SUCCESS
OF OUR MISSION. NASA MUST BE LIKE NACA IN THE QUALITIES OF STRENGTH AND CHARACTER THAT
MAKE AN ORGANIZATION GREAT [KENNEDY]
WE CHOOSE TO GO TO THE MOON IN THIS DECADE AND DO THE OTHER THINGS. NOT BECAUSE THEY
ARE EASY BUT BECAUSE THEY ARE HARD. [ARMSTRONG]
TRANQUILITY BASE HERE, THE EAGLE HAS LANDED. THIS IS A LEGACY; THIS IS A HISTORY WELL WORTH
CELEBRATING.

16 thoughts on “The NACA at 100

  1. omg with the music and all, this video is so epic. Plus I learned so much, thanks you a lot to the work put behinf this video!

  2. On this day in 1915, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, was founded. Our chief historian discusses the significance of NACA at 100 to us. Watch: [video] http://youtu.be/IIRc_aIGEWc #NACA100

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *