“Be patient, if you want to see the concrete benefits of space research. I am confident that the benefits are there. We at NASA have been given a big job— planning and executing the nation’s civilian space program. But I would first like to dispose of a question that is asked of me quite often: Why venture at all into the unknown, towards the Moon, the planets, and then towards the stars so far beyond? One answer was given by Tsiolkowsky, the 19th century scientist who Russia considers the grandfather of space. It was that the Earth is the cradle of the mind, but one cannot live forever in a cradle.”
NASA’s First Administrator, T. Keith Glennan
December 8, 1958
When NASA officially opened its doors on October 1, 1958, its birth was directly related to the pressures of national defense. After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in the Cold War, and space exploration emerged as a major area of contest that would become known as the “space race.”
A direct result of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, NASA absorbed into itself the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), including its 8,000 employees, an annual budget of $100 million, three major research laboratories (Langley Aeronautical Lab oratory, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and Lewis Flight Propulsion Lab oratory), and two smaller test facilities.
Since the formation of NASA, flight has advanced from supersonic to orbital velocities, the jetliner has become the dominant means of intercontinental mobility, astronauts have landed on the Moon, and robotic spacecraft developed by the Agency have explored the remote corners of the solar system and even passed into interstellar space.
Aeronautics is the first “A” in NASA’s name, and the oldest-rooted of the Agency’s technical competencies. It was NACA that restored America’s aeronautical primacy in the interwar years after 1918, deriving the airfoil profiles and configuration concepts that defined successive generations of ever more capable aircraft as America progressed from the subsonic piston era into the transonic and supersonic jet age. NASA took American aeronautics across the hypersonic frontier, and onward into the era of composite structures, electronic flight controls, and energy-efficient flight.
It was NASA’s aeronautics work that enabled the exploitation of the turbojet and high-speed aerodynamic revolution that led to the gas-turbine-powered jet age that followed, within which we still live.
The advent of the sharply swept-back wing enabled taking full advantage of the turbojet revolution, launching the era of high-speed global mass mobility — the iconic symbol of the jet age.
NACA/NASA engineer Richard T. Whitcomb developed, among other things, the distinctive wingtip winglet. He provided key methods of reducing drag and improving flight efficiencies in the challenging transonic region, between subsonic and supersonic flight.
The advent of practical supersonic flight brought the shock of the sonic boom. From the onset of the supersonic age in 1947, NACA/NASA researchers recognized that the sonic boom would keep routine overland supersonic aircraft operation from gaining acceptance. They developed flight-test programs and designs to reshape aircraft to mitigate sonic boom noise and overpressures, and methods to alleviate boom formation and impingement, leading to novel aircraft shaping and methods that are today promising to revolutionize the design of transonic and supersonic civil and military aircraft.
Blending the challenge of spaceflight and flight within the atmosphere, NACA/NASA research led to systems that could operate in the upper atmosphere, transitioning from lifting flight to ballistic flight, and back again. This led to the hypersonic region and then to space using the X-15 and the Space Shuttle.
The growing capabilities of the computer led to its increasing use in aerospace. NACA/NASA researchers realized how the computer could supplement traditional testing methods such as wind tunnels and test rigs. This led to computer codes used for computational fluid dynamics (CFD). These codes, refined over decades, are used in current aircraft and spacecraft.
NACA/NASA exploited materials science and development of high-temperature structures to enable design of highspeed military and civil aircraft and spacecraft. Researchers also pioneered electronic flight control (fly-by-wire) from test beds evolved from Apollo-era computers, to sophisticated systems integrating aerodynamic and propulsion controls.
NACA researched propellers, fuels, engine cooling, supercharging, and nacelle and cowling design, as well as other concepts and technology for application to new generations of military and civilian aircraft.
Atmospheric turbulence, wind shear, and gust research have been NACA/ NASA subjects of crucial importance to air safety across the spectrum of flight, from the operation of light general-aviation aircraft, through large commercial and supersonic vehicles. This includes research to understand and mitigate the danger of lightning strikes on aerospace vehicles and facilities, and the quest to make safer and more productive skyways via advances in technology, cross-disciplinary integration of developments, design innovation, and creation of new operational architectures to enhance air transportation.
Other contributions include the melding of human and machine via the emergent science of human factors to increase the safety, utility, efficiency, and comfort of flight. The refinement of free-flight model testing for aerodynamic research, the anticipation of aircraft behavior, and design validation and verification, complementing traditional wind tunnel and full-scale aircraft testing, also were pioneered by NACA/NASA researchers.
NACA and NASA have always had a strong interest in promoting Vertical/Short Take-Off and Landing (V/STOL) flight, particularly those systems that make use of rotary wings: helicopters, autogiros, and tiltrotors. New structural materials, advanced propulsion concepts, and the advent of fly-bywire technology influenced emergent rotary wing technology. Work by researchers in various centers, often in partnership with the military, enabled the United States to achieve dominance in the design and development of advanced military and civilian rotary wing aircraft systems, and continues to address important developments in this field.
NASA technology has been adapted for many non-aerospace uses by the private sector. NASA remains a leading force in scientific research and in stimulating public interest in aerospace exploration, as well as science and technology in general.