February 13, 2015

References for this post are taken from NASA Tech Briefs, Vol 39, No 2, February 2015.

In 1915 the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was formed by our Federal government.  March 3, 2015 marks the 100th birthday of that occasion.  The NACA was created by Congress over concerns the U.S. was losing its edge in aviation technology to Europe.  WWI was raging at that time and advances in aeronautics was at the forefront of the European efforts to win the war using “heavier than air” craft to pound the enemy.  The purpose of NACA was to “supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution.” State-of-the-art laboratories were constructed in Virginia, California and Ohio that led to fundamental advances in aeronautics enabling victory in WW II. Those efforts also supported national security efforts during the cold war era with Russia.  DNA of the entire aircraft industry is infused with technology resulting from research and development efforts from NASA.


NACA was formed by employing twelve (12) unpaid individuals with an annual budget of $5,000.00.  Over the course of forty-three (43) years, the agency made fundamental breakthroughs in aeronautical technology in ways affecting the manner in which airplanes and space craft are designed, built, tested and flown today.  NACA’s early successes are as follows:

  • Cowling to improve the cooling of radial engines thereby reducing drag.
  • Wind tunnel testing simulating air density at different altitudes, which engineers used to design and test dozens of wing cross-sections.
  • Wind tunnel with slots in walls that slowed researchers to take measurements of aerodynamic forces at supersonic speeds.
  • Design principals involving the shape of an aircraft’s wing in relation to the rest of the airplane to reduce drag and allow supersonic flight.
  • Distribution of reports and studies to aircraft manufacturers allowing designs benefiting from R & D efforts.
  • Development of airfoil and propeller shapes which simplified aircraft design. These shapes eventually were incorporated into aircraft such as the P-51 Mustang.
  • Research and wind tunnel testing led to the adoption of the “coke-bottle” design that still influences our supersonic military aircraft of today.

As a result of NACA efforts, flight tests were initiated on the first supersonic experimental airplane, the X-1.  This aircraft was flown by Captain Chuck Yeager and paved the way for further research into supersonic aircraft leading to the development of swept-wing configurations.

After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 in 1957, the world’s first artificial satellite, Congress responded to the nation’s fear of falling behind by passing the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958.  NASA was borne.  The new agency, proposed by President Eisenhower, would be responsible for civilian human, satellite, and robotic space programs as well as aeronautical research and development. NACA was absorbed into the NASA framework.


Looking at the achievements of NASA from that period of time, we see the following milestones:

  • 1959—Selection of seven (7) astronauts for Project Mercury.
  • 1960–Formation of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center with Dr. Werner von Braun as director.
  • 1961—President Kennedy structured a commitment to land a man on the moon.
  • 1962—John Glenn became the first American to circle the Earth in Friendship 7.
  • 1965—Gemini IV stayed aloft four (4) days during which time Edward H. White II performed the first space walk.
  • 1968—James A. Lovell Jr., William A Anders, and Frank Bormann flew the historic mission to circle the moon.
  • 1969—The first lunar landing.

Remarkable achievements that absolutely captured the imagination of most Americans.  It is extremely unfortunate that our nearsighted Federal government has chosen to reduce NASA funding and eliminate many of the manned programs and hardware previously on the “books”. We have seemingly altered course, at least relative to manned space travel.  Let’s hope we can get back on track in future years.

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