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Exploring NASA's Roots - The History of the Langley Research Center
January 24, 2007


Please note that, while the listing of Center Directors at the end of this fact sheet was updated in January 2007, the remainder of the content remains as it was written in 1992. This information is primarily for historical purposes.

Exploring NASA's Roots
The History of Langley Research Center

We are rapidly approaching the dawn of a new century, the 21st, and a new millennium, the third in the Christian era. In the last hundred years humankind has moved from the dim glow of the first electric light bulb to the cold cloud of the superconductor, from the clatter of the steam-powered railroad locomotive to the roar of the supersonic jet airliner. In the last thousand we have progressed from the water wheel to the fusion reactor, from the ox-cart tothe Space Shuttle. Only a clairvoyant could have foreseen the course of our development. It will take an even bolder visionary to imagine where we shall end up 100 years from now, let alone 1,000. Our rate of change, already invisibly rapid, seems only to be picking up.

The P-51 Mustang, shown in flight, was the first aircraft to use the NACA laminar flow airfoil.
Image above: North American's P-51 Mustang, the first aircraft to use the NACA laminar flow airfoil, was tested at Langley Research Center in 1943 in the world's first full-scale wind tunnel. Credit: NASA

In the field of aerospace technology the developments of the next century should be spectacular. The regularly scheduled flights of supersonic airliners and hypersonic aircraft capable of flying in and out of the atmosphere should enable the peoples of the world to join together on a veritable global village. No spot in the world should be farther away than two hours traveling time-or perhaps even less. There should be permanent outposts on the Moon. We should visit Mars and venture out to even more remote bodies of the solar system.

New scientific discoveries will change radically our understanding of the universe and our place in it. Perhaps signs of other life in the universe will be discovered.

All of these things might very well happen in the "Second Century" of powered flight. If they do, it will be because the next generations of aerospace scientists and engineers will be standing, in Isaac Newton's words, on the shoulders of giants.

This NASA Facts explores the history of NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, this country's first civilian aeronautics laboratory. Several major episodes in the epic story of American aerospace have their roots in the research contributions made by Langley since its establishment in 1917. The following is a brief synopsis of Langley's most historically significant achievements.

Back to the days of NACA

Today's National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established in 1958, but its historical roots reach back much farther, to 1915. In that year, 12 years after the Wright Brothers' flight and two years before American entry into World War I, the U.S. Congress created the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA.

Langley's first wind tunnelImage to left: Langley Laboratory's first wind tunnel, built in 1920. Credit: NASA

In 1915 the airplane was still largely a useless freak. Much had to be done to transform it into a practical and versatile vehicle. The NACA's mission was "to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution." This meant that the NACA was to treat aeronautics not so much as a scientific discipline, but as an area for engineering research and development. In practice this turned out to mean that the NACA would perform basic research that provided "practical solutions" to serious problems facing the aircraft industry and the military air services.

Although established in 1915, the NACA did not have operational laboratory facilities until 1920, when Langley came on line with its first primitive wind tunnel. Construction of Langley Field actually began in 1917, but the chaos of mobilizing for war in Europe delayed completion of the NACA's facilities for three years.

Variable Density Tunnel in 1922Image to right: Put into operation at Langley in 1922, the Variable Density Tunnel was the first pressurized wind tunnel in the world. It could achieve more realistic effects than any previous wind tunnel in predicting how actual aircraft would perform under flight conditions. Today it is a National Historic Landmark. Credit: NASA

Once in possession of effective experimental equipment, however, the laboratory pursued its mission with distinction. By 1931, NASA Langley was generally acknowledged to be the world's premier aeronautical research establishment.  That year, Langley's Full-Scale Tunnel began operations, joining the ingenious Variable-Density Tunnel and Propeller Research Tunnel and completing a set of research facilities that outperformed any other single collection of facilities in the world. Thanks to the reliable data resulting from intelligent use of Langley's unique complex of experimental equipment, American aircraft began to dominate the world's airways.

Through systematic aerodynamic testing, NACA researchers found practical ways to improve the performance of many different varieties of aircraft. During World War II, they tested virtually all types of American aircraft that saw combat. By pointing out ways for these aircraft to gain a few miles per hour or a few extra miles of range, their effort in many cases made the difference in performance between Allied victory and defeat in the air.

After the war, NACA researchers turned their attention to the high-speed frontier and solved many of the basic problems blocking the flight of aircraft to supersonic speeds. They played essential roles in the development of several experimental high-speed research airplanes including Bell's X-1, the first plane to break the sound barrier, and the North American's X-15, the first winged aircraft to fly into space.

The NACA flourished as a federal agency until the autumn of 1958, when it was formally abolished. In truth, however, much about the NACA lived on. Its laboratories and their staffs, although reorganized, formed the nucleus for the new space agency. The rest is history-NASA history.

The Space Frontier

Although its name changed in 1958 from NACA Langley Aeronautical Laboratory to NASA Langley Research Center, the mission of its staff members remained constant: to increase the country's knowledge and capability in a full range of aeronautical disciplines and in selected space disciplines.

Little Joe launchImage to left: Project Mercury's "Little Joe" launch vehicle, January 13, 1960, Wallops Island, VA. Little Joe, managed by Langley, demonstrated the Mercury' capsule configuration and did much to ensure the dependability of the Mercury' capsule's escape system and parachutes. Credit: NASA

In the early 1960s Langley helped give birth to the space age. Project Mercury, the nation's inaugural man-in-space program, was conceived and managed initially from Langley. Spear-heading this effort was the Center's Space Task Group, a special force of NASA employees that later expanded and moved on to become the Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center) in Houston. Before their move to Texas, however, they led the original seven astronauts (Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Carpenter, Slayton, Schirra, and Gordon) through the initial phases of their spaceflight training at Langley.

Original Seven astronauts in front of Convair F-106Image to right: NASA's seven original astronauts trained at Langley. Posed in front of a Convair F-106, they are (left to right): Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus (Virgil) Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Donald Slayton. Credit: NASA

NASA Langley went on to make several essential contributions to the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab manned programs. A thoughtful group of engineers at the Center proved the feasibility of lunar-orbit rendezvous (LOR). Without the articulation of this successful mission concept, the United States may have still landed men on the Moon, but it probably could not have happened as soon as it did, before the decade of the 1960s ran out, as President Kennedy had proposed.

Rendezvous & Docking SimulatorImage to left: Rendezvous and docking in space were tested and practiced at Langley with free-moving vehicles suspended on cables with the Rendezvous & Docking Simulator, now a National Historic Landmark. Shown at left, it is being used to simulate conditions to be found during the Gemini-Agena missions. At right, a photograph taken during the Gemini era of an Agena docking target, taken from the Gemini capsule. Credit: NASA

Spaceflight simulators designed and operated at the Center gave NASA's astronauts the experience they needed to pilot their fragile craft through the many difficult challenges of rendezvous and docking in space and landing on the Moon. The high-resolution photographic maps of the lunar surface made by NASA Langley's Lunar Orbiters made it possible to select the best sites for the landings of the Apollo and Surveyor spacecraft, and thereby learn more about the nature of the Moon.

Lunar Excursion Module simulatorImage to right: During a nighttime training session, a multiple exposure captures the movement of the Lunar Excursion Module, a manned simulator designed to familiarize the Apollo astronauts with handling characteristics of a lunar-landing type vehicle. Credit: NASA

Early unmanned space projects involving considerable creative effort by NASA Langley researchers included the Echo, Explorer, and PAGEOS satellites, all of which gave outstanding service as instruments for scientific research and global communications.

A solid-fuel rocket developed at the Center, the Scout, provided NASA with its lowest-cost, multipurpose booster. With it, a great number of precious payloads were launched into orbit. The first Scout was launched in July 1960.

Echo communications satelliteImage to right: Conceived at Langley, the Echo communications satellite, designed to reflect radio and radar signals, undergoes an inflation test in 1959. Echo was the world's first passive communications satellite. Credit: NASA

In the wake of the Apollo came Viking. In an effort that in many ways matched and even surpassed the magnitude and adventure of the lunar landing program, NASA Langley helped to send two orbiters and two landers in the mid-1970s to the planet Mars. Although probes did not result in any definitive answer to the question of whether life exists (or has ever existed) on the mysterious red planet, Viking nonetheless provided a wealth of valuable scientific information.

Scout rocket launchImage to right: Launch of the highly successful Scout launch vehicle, used for unmanned small satellite missions, high-altitude probes and reentry experiments. Langley managed the Scout launch vehicle program from 1957 - 1991.

In response to a growing concern in the late 1960s for protection of our environment, Langley researchers began to develop effective means by which to measure the Earth's oceans and continents, and detect the presence of dangerous pollutants. This effort in environmental space science quickly became a major research thrust at the Center. Its goal has been to preserve the Earth's precious ecological balance and prevent an environmental calamity that would have disastrous effects for the entire world. Today at Langley this critically important undertaking is part of what former NASA astronaut Sally Ride has called "Mission to Planet Earth."

Viking 2 on the surface of MarsImage to left: The Langley managed Viking 2 lander on Mars' Utopian Plain, September 24, 1976 - America's 200th Birthday year. Credit: NASA

An important contribution to this "mission" includes Langley's Halogen Occultation Experiment (HALOE), an atmospheric satellite deployed by the Space Shuttle in 1991. Its overall goal is to provide global-scale data on temperature, ozone, and other key trace gases needed to study and better understand the chemistry, dynamics and radiative processes of the middle atmosphere.

Langley researchers had thought about "space planes" since the early 1950s. They had pioneered the concept of the boost glider and provided basic concepts for the development of the X-15, America's first hypersonic transatmospheric vehicle. So it was natural for them to become deeply involved in the development and testing of NASA's Space Shuttle. Even before it could be test flown in 1977 (its first orbital flight took place in 1981), the Shuttle had to be put through thousands of hours of wind tunnel testing and other rigorous experiments. Much of this was done at Langley. Furthermore, Langley was responsible for optimizing the design of the Shuttle's thermal protection system, the unique arrangement of ceramic tiles that protect the reusable vehicle from the intense heat of reentry.

Space Shuttle model in 16-foot transonic wind tunnelImage to right: What may appear at first glance to be a swimming shark is a wind tunnel model of the Space Shuttle orbiter, tested in Langley's 16-Foot Transonic tunnel in 1978 for aerodynamic reentry characteristics. Credit: NASA

To complement the Space Shuttle system and provide assured manned access to space for the next generation of space programs, Langley has conceived the HL-20 lifting body as a candidate for the Personnel Launch System (PLS). This system was designed for the primary mission of changing the Space Station Freedom crews.

HL-20 space taxi concept modelImage to left: The HL-20 "space taxi" was conceived as a candidate vehicle to complement the Space Shuttle, designed for the primary mission of changing the Space Station Freedom crews. Credit: NASA

Visions of space stations orbiting the Earth had captured the imaginations of many Langley researchers as well. Long before plans for today's Space Station Freedom got under way, NASA scientists and engineers at the Center had understood the advantages of a manned laboratory in space for scientific experiments, for communications, for astronomical observation, for manufacturing, and as a relay base for lunar and planetary missions, and many other purposes. Excited by the thought of a multipurpose laboratory, they began to explore the problems of designing such a facility and operating it in Earth orbit. This early brainstorming and testing has provided a solid basis for NASA's development of Space Station Freedom. Today Langley employees continue to investigate the technologies that will be necessary for the design and operation of the Space Station, as well as for other large space structures.

Long-Duration Exposure Facility, which spent six years in orbitImage to right: LDEF carried 57 experiments into low-Earth orbit for six years. On board were more than 10,000 items to test the effects of long-term space exposure on spacecraft materials, components, and systems. Pictured is its 1990 retrieval by the Space Shuttle Columbia during the STS-32 mission. Credit: NASA

One such step was the deployment and retrieval of the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF), which was conceived, designed and developed at Langley. The bus-sized satellite carried 57 space experiments to gather scientific data and to test the effects of long-term space exposure on spacecraft materials, components and Systems. The wealth of information collected during its six-year journey will be invaluable for the design of future spacecraft.

Continuing a Tradition of Excellence in Aeronautics

With deep roots going back to the golden age of aviation, Langley Research Center never forgot that the first "A" in NASA stood for "aeronautics." Although its achievements in aeronautics were sometimes overlooked in favor of the glories and wonders of spaceflight, NASA Langley not only maintained its historic position as a world leader in aeronautical research it actually built and improved upon it.

During the 1960s Langley scientists and engineers put in a mammoth, Apollo-like effort in support of the government's proposed, but later cancelled, construction of a national supersonic transport or SST. Concurrently, they explored the potential of the variable-sweep wing and other aerodynamically and structurally novel wing shapes both for the SST and for advanced performance military aircraft.

Noteworthy breakthroughs in aeronautics have included the improvement of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capabilities; the design of the "supercritical wing" for more effective flight at high supersonic speeds; the enhancement of laminar flow in the boundary layer of a wing; and the refinement of energy-efficient engines and fuels. All of these research efforts - with the exception of SST, which was canceled by the U.S. Congress in 1971 - continued to yield valuable results into the 1970s and 1980s.

X-15 and B-52 models in Langley wind tunnel
B-52 and X-15 in flight
Images above: (TOP) A Langley researcher inspects a wind tunnel model of the North American X-15 research aircraft mated to its B-52 mothership. The X-15 was the first winged aircraft to fly into the fringes of space (50 miles high). Credit: NASA
(BOTTOM) The X-15 and mothership over California from the mid-1960s. Credit: NASA

But even the supersonic work did not really come to an end. From the early 1970s on, Langley managed to keep alive a low-level but determined program to develop the technologies required for the effective flight of a supersonic transport. By the mid-1980s, there was a renewed interest at the Center in the development of an American SST. According to estimates, new technologies, including those developed at NASA Langley, now make an SST a much better bet.

In the 1970s Langley also kept the dream of hypersonic flight alive. This effort, which has important links back to studies made at Langley as early as the 1950s, also found application in the National Aero-Space Plane (NASP). The focus of this program, which Langley led, was to create the technology base for an entirely new family of aerospace vehicles capable of flying at high Mach numbers to the edges of the atmosphere and beyond. The NASP program, known as the X-30, was discontinued in the early 1990s.

Lunar Landing Research Facility, now the Impact Dynamics FacilityImage to right: The structure that was once the Lunar Landing Research Facility is now the Impact Dynamics Facility. In this photograph, a drop model is poised to crash into the simulated runway below to document structural response to varoius impact conditions. Credit: NASA

Langley has participated in too many significant aeronautical programs, in support of too many civilian and military aircraft development programs, to describe all of them in detail. The following list of selected programs - some completed in past years, some ongoing - should be enough to exhibit the value of the Center's wide-ranging aeronautical studies.

Aeronautical and aircraft development programs in which Langley has had an important role

X-15 Program


Lifting Bodies

Supersonic Cruise Aircraft Research

Quiet Engine Research

Vertical Short Takeoff and Landing Research

Aircraft Energy Efficiency

Advanced Turboprop

Composite Materials

Crash Dynamics

Forward Swept Wing

Automated Pilot Advisory System

Stall Spin Research

Advanced Controls

Rotor Inflow Research

Laminar Flow Control


CRT's in Cockpits


Drag Reduction Studies - WWII


Historically, Langley researchers have found it beneficial to study these topics both in wind tunnels and other ground-based experimental facilities as well as in the actual flight test of aircraft. From the start, Langley's outstanding record in aerospace research has depended on creative use of basic research tools. Over the years Langley has built and operated an array of sophisticated facilities that collectively have not been outproduced by any other of the world's premier aeronautical research establishments. Many of its wind tunnels have been unprecedented. The U.S. Department of Interior has designated five of Langley's facilities as National Historic Landmarks.

Where the Past Once was ... the Future is Now

From the Curtiss Jenny to the Beech Starship and X-29, from the drone of propellers to the roar of rockets and jets, from wind tunnels generating a maximum airflow speed of 90 miles per hour to tunnels generating Mach 8, from flight a few hundred feet above the ground to flight in space, Langley Research Center has been incubating the ideas and hatching the technology that has helped Americans take off and fly. Today, penetrating minds continue to pursue that mission at Langley. Tomorrow? Well, no one can be sure what tomorrow will bring. But based on what we know about Langley's record, one can rest assured that, where the progress of flight is concerned, NASA Langley Research Center will be exploring all the possibilities.

Basic Chronology

Year Event
1915 Creation of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), Langley's first parent organization.
1917 Foundation of the NACA's Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (LMAL) and start of construction on original facilities.
1920 Formal dedication of LMAL; operation of first wind tunnel.


Name shortened to Langley Aeronautical Laboratory (LAL).


Dissolution of NACA and foundation of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); name changed to Langley Research Center (LaRC).

Langley's National Historic Landmarks

In 1985 the U.S. Department of Interior designated five Langley facilities as National Historic Landmarks. Each facility made a unique and outstanding historical contribution to American achievements in flight technology.

Name of Facility Year Built
Variable Density Tunnel 1921
Full-Scale Tunnel 1930
8-Foot High-Speed Tunnel 1935
Rendezvous Docking Simulator 1963
Lunar Landing Research Facility 1965

Langley Directors

There have been only 11 Langley directors. Until 1948 this officer, Langley's leader, was known by the descriptive title "Engineer in Charge."

Name Tenure
Leigh H. Griffith 1922 - 1925
Henry J.E. Reid 1926 - 1960
Floyd L. Thompson 1960 - 1968
Edgar M. Cortright 1968 - 1975
Donald P. Hearth 1975 - 1985
Richard H. Petersen 1985 - 1991
Paul F. Holloway 1991 - 1996
Jeremiah F. Creedon 1996 - 2002
Delma Freeman 2002 - 2003
Roy D. Bridges 2003 - 2005
Lesa B. Roe 2005 - Present

Collier Trophies

Although NASA Langley has been honored to receive a number of national awards and international distinctions, over the years many have considered one award, the Robert J. Collier Trophy, to be the most prestigious. Awarded annually for the greatest achievement in American aviation, the Collier Trophy has been awarded to Langley researchers on five occasions. The trophy, first awarded in 1911, is named for Robert J. Collier, a prominent publisher, patriot, sportsman, and aviator.

National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) Collier Trophy Winners
Year Development


NACA - For the development of low-drag cowling for radial air-cooled aircraft engines.


Lewis A. Rodert of Ames Aeronautical Laboratory for the development of an efficient wing deicing system.


John Stack of Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory for research to determine the physical laws affecting supersonic flight. Lawrence D. Bell and Chuck Yeager also shared in this trophy for their work on supersonic flight.


John Stack and associates at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory for the development and use of the slotted-throat wind tunnel.


Richard Travis Whitcomb of Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory for the development of the Whitcomb area rule, according to the citation, a "powerful, simple, and useful method of reducing greatly the sharp increase in wing drag heretofore associated with transonic flight, and which constituted a major factor requiring great reserves of power to attain supersonic speeds."


Exploring NASA'S Roots was prepared by the NASA Langley Office of Public Affairs with the assistance of Dr. James R. Hansen. Dr. Hansen is the author of "Engineer in Charge: A History of Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, 1917-1958."

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