This month marks the 100th anniversary of NASA, so why isn’t anyone celebrating? Sticklers will point out that NASA only dates back to the ’50s, to which we say, yes, but what about the agency that gave rise to it? That would be the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, which owed its life to a few sneaky engineers who somehow convinced lawmakers to squeeze some funding into the Navy Appropriation Bill of 1915. That Americans have been looking skyward—entertaining crazy dreams that eventually came true—since the Wilson administration came as something of a shock, which gave us an excuse to ring up Bill Barry, NASA’s chief historian.
In funding NACA, the government’s aim was not to create a dream factory but to catch up with the rest of the world, he told us. Although the Wright brothers’ pioneering achievements at Kitty Hawk had made them world-famous, Americans tended to see airplanes as a fad. Not so Germany and the UK, both of which began mass production of their own flying machines. By the time World War I broke out, each had thousands of planes. The US had 23. NACA was intended to help us close the gap quickly, which it did. Mission accomplished: let the dreaming begin.
“[NACA’s] strength was finding new people and putting them on new projects,” Barry said, giving much of the credit to George W. Lewis, the agency’s first director, who drew on every resource he could find. Lewis oversaw construction of the wind tunnels at Langley Airfield in Virginia, which produced 100 mph winds, allowing scientists to simulate and test different aeronautic conditions. He even brought on German engineer Max Munk for their design. “They had to get special permission from the President to hire a German engineer so soon after the war,” Barry explained. “Some of his work with Germany was classified from World War I. But Lewis was good at finding ways to get the best people.” He also hired Pearl Young, in 1922, to found NACA’s technical editing program, creating the standard for research procedures and publications. She was only the second female physicist to work outside of academia.
“By the early 1930s, NACA was the place for aeronautics and research,” Barry continued. The scientists and designers shared their findings with the world, and soon the agency became the world’s premier airplane-design center. “Everyone came to NACA. In World War II there were actually planes in the Luftwaffe and US Spitfires that both had NACA wings.”
The agency was also instrumental to the success of commercial aviation and was crucial to American efforts during World War II. But NACA’s heart and imagination lay elsewhere, beyond the atmosphere. Its scientists had been dreaming of leaving Earth ever since the 1930s, when the wind tunnels began to test simulations for atmospheric resistance. After the war was over, they began to actively push for a space program, and “by the mid-’50s, about a quarter of their budget was already designated for rocket research,” Barry said. Yet government funding remained minimal, as officials doubted that space travel was possible. Once again, it took external motivation to nudge American efforts forward, this time in the form of the Sputnik satellite.
The rest, as they say, is history. NACA scientists exchanged the C for an S, President Kennedy challenged them to reach the moon, and the next 50 years were marked by space travel and rocket launches. And the dreaming goes on.
“We’ll see the same caliber of things,” Barry said, when asked what the next 100 years might bring. “NACA had a really interesting history of taking new people and giving them government jobs and the freedom to explore….I think we’ll be carrying on with that.”