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High-Energy Propellants and Advanced Propulsion 1952-1957

In the early 1950s, the Lewis laboratory expanded its efforts in the fields of high-energy propellants and nuclear propulsion while continuing to test new turbojet and ramjet engines.   

Two engineers crouching with clipboards inside a circular propellant test facility.
View into a PSL test chamber in October 1952.

Propulsion Systems Laboratory 

The Lewis laboratory needed new facilities to keep up with the unforeseen jet engine advancements. In the fall of 1952, the new Propulsion Systems Laboratory No. 1 and 2 (PSL) became the nation’s most powerful facility for testing full-scale engines at simulated flight altitudes. Engines for military aircraft, the Navaho Missile, and the Centaur rocket were tested in PSL’s test chambers. 

Man examining aircraft engine compressor.
A mechanic examines a five-stage transonic compressor for a Westinghouse J-34 engine.

Transonic Compressor

In the mid-1950s Lewis researchers designed a multi-stage transonic compressor to test their theory that compressors possess no inherent design limitations.  They surmised that performance could be continually increased with proper design methods.  The Lewis researchers successfully verified their findings by testing these transonic compressors in actual engines. 

Nighttime firing of an engine out of a test cell.
Firing of a 5000-pound thrust liquid hydrogen-liquid oxygen engine from Cell 22 of the Rocket Lab in early January 1955.

Liquid Hydrogen Firing 

In the early 1950s the rocket group began testing high-energy propellants such as diborane, pentaborane, and hydrogen in rocket engines. The lab’s first successful liquid-hydrogen/liquid-oxygen engine firing took place on November 23, 1954. In the mid-1950s Lewis researchers increased their focus on liquid hydrogen as a potential fuel for both aircraft and missiles. 

Addison Rothrock, speaking from podium on a grandstand.
NACA official Addison Rothrock, speaks at the groundbreaking for the Plum Brook Reactor Facility in 1956.

Plum Brook Groundbreaking 

In September 1955, NACA and government officials broke ground for the NACA’s Plum Brook Reactor Facility on 500 acres of the 9,000-acre Plum Brook Ordnance Works. The center would lease another 2,600 acres in 1958, and took control of the entire property in 1963. 

Man standing with large jet engine in wind tunnel test section.
An NACA engineer next to a full-scale translating spike inlet for the B-58 Hustler in the 10×10 SWT (1956).

10-by 10-Foot Supersonic Wind Tunnel 

On May 22, 1956, the NACA dedicated its new 10-by 10-Foot Supersonic Wind Tunnel–the most powerful propulsion tunnel in the nation. That fall, the 10-by 10 performed a critical engine inlet test for the Convair B-58 Hustler. 

10-by 10 Testing of B-58 Inlet System   

B-57 bomber on tarmac with cockpit open.
Martin B–57B Canberra with wing tip fuel tanks used for an experimental liquid hydrogen fuel system, referred to as Project Bee

Liquid Hydrogen Aircraft

Following the early liquid hydrogen tests, Abe Silverstein and Eldon Hall wrote a report to predicted unparalleled performance of a hydrogen-powered aircraft. In 1955 Lewis engineers began converting a B-57B Canberra to operate on hydrogen. The first successful flights took place in early 1957.   

Two men in control room watching monitor.
A test engineer in the RETF control remotely monitors an engine firing in 1957.

Rocket Engine Test Facility 

The Rocket Engine Test Facility (RETF) became operational in the fall of 1957. The RETF was a significant upgrade to the Rocket Lab test cells. The facility contributed to the development of liquid hydrogen technology that powered the Centaur and Saturn upper stages.