Text Size
NASA - NACA - 90 years later
May 11, 2005

This image on the Dryden (then the NACA High-Speed Flight Research Station) ramp in June 1953 shows, clockwise from left, the Bell X-1A, D-558-1, XF-92A, X-5, D-558-2, X-4 and X-3, center. On March 3, NASA marked the 90th anniversary of the founding of its predecessor organization, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and the achievements of nearly a century of work in NASA's keystone discipline, aeronautics. For the past 90 years, the Agency has spearheaded advances in aeronautical technology that have found applications in nearly all civil, commercial and military aircraft since the NACA's founding.

Image Right: This image on the Dryden (then the NACA High-Speed Flight Research Station) ramp in June 1953 shows, clockwise from left, the Bell X-1A, D-558-1, XF-92A, X-5, D-558-2, X-4 and X-3, center.

From March 3, 1915, until its incorporation into NASA on Oct. 1, 1958, the NACA provided technical advice to the aviation industry in the U.S. and carried out cutting-edge aeronautics research. The NACA was created by President Woodrow Wilson in an effort to organize American aeronautical research and "to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight, with a view to their practical solution." NASA has continued this tradition to the present day.

Major contributions

In the 1920s NACA engineers developed a low-drag, streamlined cowling for aircraft engines, which all aircraft manufacturers adopted. This innovation resulted in significant operating-cost savings and won the 1929 Collier Trophy. NACA engineers demonstrated the advantages of mounting engines into the leading edge of a wing of multiengine aircraft rather than suspending them below, another commercially adopted innovation.

During the 1930s, NACA engineers developed several families of airfoils. Many of these airfoil shapes have been successfully used over the years as wing and tail sections for general aviation and military aircraft, as well as propellers and helicopter rotors. The testing data gave aircraft manufacturers a wide selection of airfoils from which to choose. The information eventually found its way into the designs of many U.S. aircraft, including a number of important World War II-era aircraft.

In the 1940s, NACA researchers developed the laminar-flow airfoil, which solved the problem of turbulence at the wing trailing edge that had limited aircraft performance, and pioneered advances in transonic and supersonic flight. Engineer John Stack led development of a supersonic wind tunnel, speeding the advent of operational supersonic aircraft. He shared the Collier Trophy in 1947 with Army Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager and Lawrence Bell, of Bell Aircraft, for research to determine the physical laws affecting supersonic flight.

This image shows the NACA Muroc staff from October 1947 in front of the NACA XS-1. In the background is the NACA JTB-29A that carried the XS-1 under its fuselage. In 1945, Robert T. Jones, a premier aeronautical engineer of the twentieth century, formulated the swept-back wing concept to reduce shockwave effects at critical Mach numbers. Lewis Rodert received the Collier Trophy in 1947 from President Harry S. Truman for his pioneering research in a thermal ice prevention system for aircraft.

Image Left: This image shows the NACA Muroc staff from October 1947 in front of the NACA XS-1. In the background is the NACA JTB-29A that carried the XS-1 under its fuselage. NASA Photo

In December 1951, Richard T. Whitcomb verified his "area rule" in the NACA transonic wind tunnel located at the NACA's Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia. Useful in the design of delta-wing planes flying in the transonic or supersonic range, the rule resulted in the "Coke bottle" or "wasp waist" fuselage shape to reduce drag in the design of new supersonic aircraft.

In 1952, H. Julian Allen conceived the "blunt body concept," which suggested that a blunt shape would absorb only a very small fraction of the heat generated by the reentry of a body into Earth's atmosphere. The principle was later significant to intercontinental ballistic missile nose cones, the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft and all unmanned probes entering Earth's atmosphere and that of other planets. In the 1960s and 1970s, lifting body research and flight tests proved the feasibility of that concept and contributed to design of the Space Shuttle.

In 1952, NACA laboratories began studying problems likely to be encountered in space. In May 1954, the NACA proposed to the Air Force development of a piloted research vehicle that would study the problems of flight in the upper atmosphere and at hypersonic speeds. That led to development of the famed rocket-propelled X-15 research airplane.

With the NACA's transformation into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958, research for space travel became a high-profile endeavor. NASA and Bell Aerosystems developed a Lunar Landing Training Vehicle flight simulator for the Apollo program that allowed a pilot to make a vertical landing on Earth in a simulated moon environment. Donald K. "Deke' Slayton, then NASA's astronaut chief, said there was no other way to simulate a moon landing except by flying the LLTV.

The Agency spearheaded develop-ment and testing of a Supercritical Wing designed by NASA aerodynamicist Richard Whitcomb. The SCW was designed to delay formation of and reduce the shock wave over a wing just below and above the speed of sound (transonic region of flight). The subsequent drag reduction resulted in increased cruising speed, improved fuel efficiency and greater flight range than can be attained by conventional-wing aircraft. As a result, supercritical wings are now commonplace on virtually every modern subsonic commercial transport.

NASA's F-8 Digital Fly-By-Wire flight research project validated the principal concepts of all-electric flight control systems. The F-8 DFBW system was the forerunner of current fly-by-wire systems used in the Space Shuttles and on nearly all modern high-performance military aircraft and in many civil transports, to make them safer, more maneuverable and more efficient. Electronic fly-by-wire systems replaced older hydraulic control systems, freeing designers to design aircraft with reduced in-flight stability.

NASA engineers developed and tested small, nearly vertical "winglets" designed by Whitcomb that are installed on an airplane's wing tips to help reduce drag. The winglet technology was initially applied to general aviation business jets, but has since been incorporated into most modern commercial and military transport jets.

In 2004, four decades of supersonic-combustion ramjet (scramjet) propulsion research culminated in two successful flights of the X-43A hypersonic technology demonstrator, attaining speeds of Mach 6.8 (5,000 mph) and Mach 9.6 (6,800 mph), world airspeed records for an aircraft powered by an air-breathing engine. This was the first time a scramjet-powered aircraft had flown freely under its own power, and proved that scramjet propulsion is a viable technology for powering future space-access vehicles and hypersonic aircraft.

The NACA and NASA have been involved in virtually all areas of aeronautics. Some of the Agency's other significant achievements include:

  • The NACA proposed establishing a Bureau of Aeronautics in the Commerce Department, granting funds to the Weather Bureau to promote safety in aerial navigation, licensing of pilots, aircraft inspection and expansion of airmail.
  • The NACA made recommendations to President Calvin Coolidge's Morrow Board in 1925 that led to passage of the Air Commerce Act of 1926, the first federal legislation regulating civil aeronautics.
  • Research reports distributed by the NACA (and later NASA) served as the basis for many innovations later incorporated into American civil and military aircraft.
  • In 1928, the NACA began operating the first refrigerated wind tunnel for research on prevention of icing of wings and propellers.
  • NACA propulsion experts helped develop the field of gas turbine engine research and, to address continuing problems of how to cool turbine blades in the new turbojets, laid the basic foundation for research into heat-transfer phenomena.
  • In the 1990s, NASA engineers developed a computer-assisted engine control system that enabled a pilot to land a plane safely when its normal control surfaces are disabled. The Propulsion-Controlled Aircraft system uses standard autopilot controls already present in the cockpit, together with new programming in the aircraft's flight control computers.

The Aero Centers

In 1917, the NACA established the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia, now the NASA Langley Research Center. This laboratory quickly became the most advanced aeronautical test and experimentation facility in the world.

In 1939, NACA authorized establishment of an aircraft research laboratory at Moffett Naval Air Station near San Francisco. It was renamed Ames Aeronautical Laboratory for Joseph F. Ames, a chairman of NACA, in 1944, and eventually became NASA Ames Research Center.

In 1940, Congress authorized construction of an aircraft engine research laboratory in Cleveland. Dedicated in 1943, it was named the Lewis Research Center in 1948, after George Lewis, former NACA director of aeronautical research. Today, it is known as NASA Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field, in honor of former astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn.

A temporary Langley outpost established at Muroc Army Air Base, Calif., in 1946 shortly became a permanent facility known as the NACA Muroc Flight Test Unit. In 1949, it became the NACA High Speed Flight Research Station and in 1954 became independent from Langley. In 1976, it was renamed the Dryden Flight Research Center in honor of Dr. Hugh L. Dryden, the last director of the NACA and the first deputy administrator of NASA.

The Next 90 Years

In the future, NASA will continue to develop and validate high-value technologies that enable exploration and discovery while continuing its legacy breakthrough work in aeronautics.

The agency's aeronautics research mission directorate is focused on improved airspace management systems, technologies to improve safety and security of commercial air travel and revolutionary vehicle designs with significantly greater performance, lower operating costs and lesser environmental impacts.

+ View full PDF version of the March 2005 X-Press

Image Token: 
Image Token: 
Page Last Updated: September 4th, 2013
Page Editor: NASA Administrator