Chapter 4

From NACA to NASA

(November 1957 - September 1958)

[71] SPUTNIK II, carrying its canine passenger into orbit on November 3, 1957, made clear what the first Sputnik had only implied: the U.S.S.R. would eventually try to put a man in orbit. Americans read of this latest Soviet achievement and wondered how soon the West might be able to restore the technological and ideological balance. Throughout the United States, individuals and organizations were doing an uncommon amount of introspection. It was time for some rethinking and reexamination, for an inquiry into the nature, meaning, and direction of American government and society in the Space Age.

One of the most introspective Government agencies in the post-Sputnik period was the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. To most people in NACA it was obvious that the organization had reached a crisis in its proud but rather obscure history; unless NACA moved rapidly and adroitly it might very well be overwhelmed in the national clamor for radical departures. New guidelines for its future clearly were in order. On November 18, 19, and 20, 1957, aboard the carrier Forrestal off the eastern coast of Florida, NACA's key Committee on Aerodynamics held another of its periodic meetings. Carried on in a mood of patriotic concern and challenge created by the Sputniks, these discussions reinforced the growing conviction that NACA should do more in astronautics. Among the 22 representatives of industry, the military, and academic aeronautics making up the committee, a consensus emerged that "NACA should act now to avoid being ruled out of the field of space flight research," and that "increased emphasis should be placed on research on the problems of true space flight over extended periods of time." The committee then adopted a resolution calling for "an aggressive program ... for increased NACA participation in upper atmosphere and space flight research."1

Two days after the Committee on Aerodynamics adjourned, the Main Committee of NACA met and voted to establish a Special Committee on Space Technology. H. Guyford Stever, a physicist and dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, took charge of the heterogeneous group. The special committee was the first established by NACA to concern itself expressly and exclusively with space matters. It was "to survey the whole problem of space technology from the point of view of needed research and development and advise [76] the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics with respect to actions which the NACA should take."2 Appointed to the new committee were such diverse leaders in space science and technology as James A. Van Allen, Wernher von Braun, William H. Pickering, and W. Randolph Lovelace II.3

As apprehensive Americans watched the failure of the Vanguard test vehicle in December and the successful Jupiter-C launch of Explorer I in January, NACA continued to assess its potential role in the Space Age. Shortly after the Sputniks, NACA Director Hugh L. Dryden; Chairman James H. Doolittle; John F. Victory, the venerable executive secretary of NACA; and others at Headquarters in Washington had decided on the course NACA should follow in succeeding months. Assuming that now a unified space program would come into being, the NACA leaders wanted to ensure their organization a place in such a national enterprise. To Dryden, who largely guided the formulation of its strategy, NACA should proceed cautiously toward its minimum and yet most important objective - extension of its traditional preeminence as an aeronautical research organization into the higher realm of astronautics. This would involve a continuation of NACA's traditional function as planner, innovator, tester, and data-gatherer for the Defense Department and the missile and aircraft industry. While a larger role, entailing responsibilities for development, management, and flight operations in addition to research, very possibly could come to NACA in a national astronautics effort, publicly NACA should play down whatever ambitions for such a role individuals and groups within the agency might have.4

In keeping with this "soft-sell" philosophy and plan of attack, the Main Committee, at its regular meeting of January 16, 1958, resolved that any national undertaking in astronautics should combine the talents and facilities of the Defense Department, NACA, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Science Foundation. In other words, national space activities should follow roughly the pattern of Project Vanguard. NACA, while taking part in the launching of space vehicles and acquiring more authority to let research contracts, should continue to function primarily as a research institution.5 Dryden essentially reiterated this viewpoint in a speech which Victory read for him nine days later before the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences in New York. The NACA Director proposed that the current division of labor among the military, industry, and NACA be perpetuated in a national space program, with NACA doing research and providing technical assistance and the military contracting with industry for hardware development.6

Then, the next month, the Main Committee considered and circulated a prospectus inspired by Abe Silverstein, Associate Director of the Lewis Aeronautical Laboratory, and written mainly by his senior engineers. Entitled "A Program for Expansion of NACA Research in Space Flight Technology," it called for a "major expansion" of NACA activity to "provide basic research in support of the development of manned satellites and the travel of man to the moon and nearby planets." The Lewis group proposed an enlargement of NACA's existing laboratories and [77] a new, separate installation for nuclear powerplant research. The cost of the expansion of the program, including the expense of contracted research, was estimated at $200 million. Nothing was said about giving NACA added development, management, and operational tasks in manned space flight programs.7

So by early February 1958, as the Eisenhower administration began wrestling with the complexities of formulating a national program for space exploration, NACA had taken the official position that with regard to space it neither wanted nor expected more than its historic niche in Government-financed science and engineering. While NACA should become a substantially bigger instrument for research, it should remain essentially a producer of data for use by others.


1 Minutes, NACA Committee on Aerodynamics, Forrestal, Nov. 18-20, 1957, 17-18.

2 Minutes, NACA Executive Committee, Washington, Nov. 21, 1957, 6-5, NASA Hist. Archives, Washington. Jerome C. Hunsaker, who only the previous year had resigned the chairmanship of the Main Committee, initially was offered the chairmanship of the Special Committee on Space Technology, but he declined.

3 Minutes, NACA Executive Committee, Washington, Feb. 20, 1958, NASA Hist. Archives.

4 Hugh L. Dryden, interview, Washington, Aug. 31, 1965; Paul G. Dembling, interview, Washington, Sept. 2, 1965.

5 Minutes, NACA Executive Committee, Washington, Jan. 16, 1958, NASA Hist. Archives; Arthur S. Levine, "United States Aeronautical Research Policy, 1915-1958: A Study of the Major Policy Decisions of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics," unpublished Ph. D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1963, 146-147.

6 The speech was published in somewhat revised form as "Space Technology and the NACA," Aeronautical Engineering Review, XVII (March 1958), 32-34, 44. See also Jay Holmes, America on the Moon: The Enterprise of the Sixties (Philadelphia, 1962), 72.

7 NACA Lewis Staff, "A Program for Expansion of NACA Research in Space Flight Technology, with Estimates of the Staff and Facilities Required," Washington, Feb. 10, 1958.


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