Streamlined aircraft bodies, quieter jet engines, techniques for preventing icing, drag-reducing winglets, lightweight composite structures, and so much more are an everyday part of flying thanks to NASA research that traces its origins back to the earliest days of aviation.
All of us at NASA can be proud of our ongoing role in enabling aeronautical innovation and ingenuity, a research heritage that goes back 100 years to the formation in 1915 of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). March 3, 2015 marks the centenary of this occasion.
The NACA was created by Congress over concerns the U.S. was losing its edge in aviation technology to Europe, where World War I was raging. NACA’s mission, in part, was to “supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution.”
Subsequent research by the NACA’s engineers at its world-class laboratories and wind tunnels in Virginia, California, and Ohio led to fundamental advances in aeronautics that enabled victory in World War II, propelled supersonic flight, supported national security during the Cold War, and laid the foundation for the space age with NASA’s creation in 1958.
This year, as we celebrate the NACA centennial and our heritage of excellence in aviation research, our aeronautical innovators are continuing to identify ever more complex problems in aviation, while also designing and testing practical solutions using ever more sophisticated tools.
It is important to remember that at every step along the way — atop traffic control towers, from departure gate to arrival terminal at airports everywhere, and inside cockpits, cabins, and jet engines — the DNA of the entire aviation industry is infused with technology that has its roots in NASA research.
A Modest Beginning
The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was born on March 3, 1915 with 12 unpaid, highly qualified men and a budget of $5,000 a year to promote and conduct aeronautical research. NACA would change the face of U.S. aviation, and in doing so, establish a legacy of innovative aeronautical research that continues at NASA today.
NACA’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.”
Over the course of NACA’s 43 years, it made fundamental aeronautic breakthroughs in the way today’s aircraft and spacecraft are built, tested, and designed. NACA’s groundbreaking research sparked many of the key technologies that accelerated the development of safe, effective, and economical air travel.
NACA came into being, much like its successor organization, NASA, in response to the success of others. Even though the Wright brothers had been the first to make a powered airplane flight in 1903, by the beginning of World War I in 1914, the United States lagged behind Europe in airplane technology. In order to catch up, Congress founded NACA to play an important role in aeronautics research in the U.S.
While not originally intended to administer its own laboratories, NACA’s expanding role led to the creation of its first research and testing facility in 1920, the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory. In its early years, NACA conducted many types of flight tests, involving both models and full-scale aircraft. Many of the test flights took place in a series of wind tunnels NACA developed.
NACA’s early advances included:
- Cowling to improve the cooling of a radial engine, which also reduced drag on the aircraft.
- Wind tunnel that can simulate air density at different altitudes, which engineers used to design and test dozens of wing cross-section shapes.
- Wind tunnel with slots in its wall that allowed researchers to take measurements of aerodynamic forces at near supersonic speeds.
- Design principle involving the shape of an aircraft’s wing in relation to the rest of the airplane to reduce drag and allow supersonic flight.
In addition to the technical discoveries, one of the greatest contributions of NACA was its insistence on producing and widely distributing its reports, memoranda, and notes, which allowed the rest of the aviation community to take full advantage of the research results. All of these contributions continue to be in use today, and further opened the doors to enhancement as research methods and technology improved — namely, going from the slide rule to the desktop computer.
Research Milestones in Aviation and Space
NACA began to hit its stride in the 1930s and 1940s, when the threat and reality of a new world war forced rapid development and testing of new aircraft and the addition of two new laboratories, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory in 1940, and the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory (the Cleveland laboratory later named Lewis Research Center) in 1941. During this period, using wind tunnel testing, NACA developed airfoil shapes for wings and propellers, which simplified aircraft design. The shapes eventually found their way into the designs of many U.S. aircraft of the time, including a number of important World War II-era aircraft such as the P-51 Mustang.
After World War II, NACA began to work on the goal of supersonic flight. To further this goal, an adjunct facility to Langley was established in California at the Air Force’s Muroc Field (later renamed Edwards Air Force Base). NACA worked closely with the U.S. Air Force and Bell Aircraft to design the first supersonic aircraft. NACA had never before dealt with the initial design and construction of a research plane. This change in policy was a successful one. NACA made a number of contributions to the design, including a changed tail.
The first supersonic flight took place in 1947 in an experimental airplane, the X-1, piloted by Captain Chuck Yeager. This supersonic flight paved the way for further research into supersonic aircraft, leading to the development of swept wings as well as a new shape for aircraft.
In 1951, Richard Whitcomb, a NACA engineer, invented the concept of the area rule, which required trimming or indenting the midsection of an airplane’s fuselage in the area where the wing joined it. The resulting “Coke bottle” look decreased drag and made it easier for a plane to go supersonic. The appearance of most modern combat aircraft, especially fighters, is a result of this breakthrough.
During the 1950s, as the Cold War deepened, NACA devoted more time and research to missile technology. It was responsible for developing the tactics and designs for the reentry of space vehicles. Initially, the focus was on missile warheads, but later was applied to the possibility of manned vehicles. NACA expanded once again, adding a site for launching rocket-propelled airplane models for high-speed tests at Wallops Island.
At the same time, NACA began to look toward the possibility of manned spaceflight. In the late 1950s, NACA developed a plan that called for a blunt-body spacecraft that would reenter with a heat shield, a worldwide tracking network, and dual controls that would gradually give the pilot of the craft greater control. All of these would become part of the space program, but not under NACA.
After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, in 1957, Congress responded to the nation’s fear of falling behind the Soviets by passing the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, which formed a new civilian space agency: NASA.
NACA officially turned over operations to NASA on October 1, 1958. The new agency would be responsible for civilian human, satellite, and robotic space programs, as well as aeronautical research.
Between its founding in 1915 and its incorporation into NASA in 1958, NACA accomplished many technological feats. It was a major force for technological change in aeronautics. NACA’s efforts were in a large part responsible for turning the American airplane from slow cloth-and-wood biplanes of the World War I era into the jets of today. The foundations of NASA and the success of its many missions rest squarely on the cornerstone of NACA’s organizational and technical expertise.
Visit the NASA History Program Office at http://history.nasa.gov for a complete history.