Aeronautics to Astronautics: NACA Research
(1952 - 1957)
LITTLE known outside the military services and the aircraft industry, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics by the early 1950s had far outgrown its name and could look back on nearly four decades filled with landmark contributions to military and civilian aeronautics. NACA had matured much beyond its original "advisory" capacity, had established three national laboratories, and had become perhaps the world's foremost aeronautical research organization. Drag-reducing engine cowlings, wing fillets, retractable landing gear, thin swept wings, and new fuselage shapes for supersonic aircraft - these were only a few of the numerous innovations leading to improved airplane performance that were wholly or partially attributable to the agency. NACA had pioneered in institutionalized team research - "big science," as opposed to the "little science" of individual researchers working alone or in small academic groups - and over the years such activity had paid off handsomely for the Nation.1 NACA's relative importance in the totality of American aeronautics had declined after the Second World War with the enormous increase in military research and development programs, but NACA did not exaggerate when it asserted that practically every airplane aloft reflected some aspect of its research achievements.
The contributions of NACA in aeronautics were spectacular, but regarding the inchoate discipline of astronautics, especially rocket propulsion research, the agency, like the rest of the country, was skeptical, conservative, reticent. The prevailing prewar attitude within NACA toward rocket technology was expressed in 1940 by Jerome C. Hunsaker, then a member and later chairman of NACA's Main Committee. Discussing an Army Air Corps contract with the California Institute of Technology for rocket research in relation to current NACA work on the deicing of aircraft windshields, Hunsaker said to Theodore von Kármán of CalTech, "You can have the Buck Rogers job."2
In the early postwar years the leaders of NACA viewed rocket experimentation, such as the program beginning in 1945 at the Pilotless Aircraft Research Station,  on Wallops Island, Virginia, as essentially a tool for aerodynamics research furthering the progress of supersonic flight within the atmosphere. NACA's annual report for 1948, for example, mentioned the heating rates generated on the noses of the V-2s then being fired at White Sands, but discussed the problem of structural heating only in the context of aircraft.3
At the request of the military services, the Langley, Lewis, and Ames laboratories did study the theoretical performance of missiles, the operation of rocket engines, the composition of rocket fuels, and automatic control arrangements for supersonic guided missiles and aircraft. But such research accounted for only a small percentage of the total NACA workload and budgetary allotments. The annual budget cuts suffered by NACA, beginning in 1949 and reaching a high point in 1954 when the agency received only a little more than half its request, perhaps intensified the scientific conservatism of the NACA leaders, while the Korean War once again shifted most NACA laboratory work to the "cleaning up" of military aircraft.4 It was in this climate of declining support for flight research in 1953 that NACA Director Hugh L. Dryden, who less than ten years later would be helping manage a manned lunar-landing program, wrote, "I am reasonably sure that travel to the moon will not occur in my lifetime ...."5
1 See Derek J. de Solla Price, Little Science, Big Science (New York, 1963); and A. Hunter Dupree, Science in the Federal Government: A History of Policies and Activities to 1940 (Cambridge, Mass., 1957), 1-2, 369-391.
2 Quoted in Frank J. Malina, "Origins and First Decade of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory," in Eugene M. Emme, ed., The History of Rocket Technology: Essays on Research, Development, and Utility (Detroit, 1964), 52.
3 Thirty-Fourth Annual Report of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics - 1948 (Washington, 1951), 37.
4 Hugh L. Dryden, "NACA: What It's Doing and Where It's Going," Missiles and Rockets, I (Oct. 1956), 44-46; Thirty-Fifth Annual Report of the NACA - 1949 (Washington, 1951), 19; Thirty-Sixth Annual Report of the NACA - 1950 (Washington, 1951), 33; Thirty-Seventh Annual Report of the NACA - 1951 (Washington, 1952), 26; Thirty-Eighth Annual Report of the NACA - 1952 (Washington, 1954), 38; Thirty-Ninth Annual Report of the NACA - 1953 (Washington, 1955), 30-31; Arthur S. Levine, "U.S. 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, 111-112. NACA's contribution to the International Geophysical Year's Project Vanguard was limited to the calculation of optimum satellite trajectories.
5 Hugh L. Dryden, "Fact Finding for Tomorrow's Planes," National Geographic, CIV (Dec. 1953), 772. Dryden, a distinguished physicist with the National Bureau of Standards and a member of NACA's Committee on Aerodynamics since the 1930s, became the Director of NACA in 1949. Despite the tremendous acceleration of the space program in the 1960s, Dryden's words were prophetic for himself if not for his generation. He died in December 1965, two months before the first major launch in the Apollo program.
This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury
Previous | Next
Page numbers from the original publication are included within the text within square brackets.