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NASA Langley Research Center and Space Flight

Expanding the Frontiers of Flight, by Robert McCallImage above: "Expanding the Frontiers of Flight" by Robert McCall commemorates Langley's contributions to aircraft, spacecraft, and the future of flight. Credit: NASA

The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) established Langley in 1917 to solve the problems of flight. Wind tunnels and laboratories were built and an array of engineers, scientists, mathematicians - known as human computers - and crafts people went to work. With the advent of electronic computers, the staff had another tool to learn more about the mysteries of flight. Applying the results of countless wind tunnel and flight tests, Langley researchers developed software to model the physics of airflow on an aircraft and spacecraft. This software, widely used inside and outside of NASA, provides details about the flow of air and other fluids. Along with wind tunnels, laboratories, research aircraft, and computer modeling, researchers use sophisticated flight simulators. These research flight simulators at Langley are many times more realistic than piloting video games and allow safe testing of new aviation concepts. These same tools are also needed to unlock the secrets of spacecraft.

Before the Earth-shaking roar of a launch, a safe, efficient, and very complex spacecraft needs to be designed, tested, and built. Langley contributed extensively to all of our nation's past spacecraft and is now working on vehicles that will send humans to the moon and Mars. Langley's wide-ranging contributions to space flight are an extension of groundbreaking work in aeronautics and critical to the success of our space program.

The Beginning of U.S. Space Flight

During World War II, the need for aircraft to fly higher and faster became apparent. Early results from wind tunnel tests at transonic speeds – where subsonic flight becomes supersonic - did not match the reality of transonic flight. Before Langley developed the slotted-throat tunnel to solve this problem, several methods were tried to get accurate transonic measurements. One method fixed small, instrumented wing models to full-scale aircraft; another launched small, highly instrumented rockets. Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, as it was known then, established a rocket testing range at Wallops Island, Va., to learn more about transonic flight. The data from test rockets went into the design of the Douglas D-558 and the Bell X-1, the first aircraft to attempt to fly faster than the speed of sound. This same data was useful when the nation began to develop a space program.

In 1958, after the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik, NACA became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA Administrator, Dr. Keith Glennan, asked Langley's assistant director, Robert Gilruth, a former head of the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD) that had tested rockets at Wallops, to form the Space Task Group. Gilruth chose 36 Langley personnel, 14 of them from PARD, and 10 rocket and electronic-engine experts from what is now NASA Glenn Research Center. This group began to formulate the nation's first crewed space program, Project Mercury. From this historic beginning, Langley continues to be a vital contributor to the nation's space effort using the same tools that advance the nation's aeronautical know-how. For highlights about Langley's past see

Mercury - Putting an American in Orbit

Original 7 astronaut John Glenn in Mercury Procedures TrainerImage to right. Original 7 astronaut John Glenn in Mercury Procedures Trainer at Langley. Credit: NASA.

Langley contributed significantly to Project Mercury, which was initially based here. The original seven astronauts trained at Langley. The prototypes of the Mercury capsules, known as Little Joe and Big Joe were developed and tested by Langley staff in Langley workshops and tunnels. They also designed and monitored a tracking and ground instrumentation system. For more information about Langley and Project Mercury, see

Lunar Orbiter - Mapping the Terrain

Five Lunar Orbiters mapped 99 percent of the lunar surface. The first three missions mapped potential landing sites. The last two sent back the first pictures of the far side of the moon. Langley staff managed the project and compiled photographic maps. For more information, see the "Lunar Orbiter Project" section at and

Neil Armstrong, first person on the moon, at Langley LunarImage to right. Neil Armstrong, first person on the moon, at Langley Lunar Landing Facility. Credit: NASA.

Apollo - Humans on the Moon

Answering the challenge to land humans on the moon required a tremendous effort. Langley tested the Saturn-Apollo vehicle in wind tunnels and trained 24 astronauts in rendezvous and docking, Lunar Excursion Module landing, and reduced gravity walking. Langley researchers developed rendezvous and docking technology and simulation. For Project FIRE, researchers studied re-entry effects on spacecraft materials. To learn more about lunar orbit rendezvous see For more information about NASA Langley and the Apollo missions see

Time-lapse photo of Gemini capsule in Langley Rendezvous and Docking SimulatorImage to right. Time-lapse photo of Gemini capsule in Langley Rendezvous and Docking Simulator. Credit: NASA

Space Shuttle - An Aerospace Vehicle

Building on a solid background in aeronautics and space flight research, including pioneering work on hypersonic gliders, the X-15 rocket plane, and other space planes, Langley made significant contributions to the Space Shuttle. Langley researchers developed preliminary Shuttle designs, including the use of a modified delta wing.

About 60,000 hours of shuttle wind tunnel tests and analysis were conducted at Langley. These results, as well as countless hours of materials and flight control and guidance systems work, constitute over half of the Shuttle Aerodynamic Design Data Book. The Shuttle Thermal Protection System was investigated and certified at Langley. The unique Langley Aircraft Landing Dynamics facility tested Shuttle main and nose gear tires and brake systems. The expert staff assigned to this facility conducted runway surface texture tests and recommended Kennedy runway modifications. Langley also helped in the redesign of solid rocket booster components. Langley's expertise in avionics led to glass cockpit technology to upgrade the original Shuttle cockpit.

For more information about initial Langley contributions to the Space Shuttle see For more information about the glass cockpit technology see

The Vision for Space Exploration-the Future of Space Flight

The Vision for Space Exploration began with the return to flight of the Space Shuttle fleet. It will extend humanity's presence, with a return to the moon by the end of the next decade, followed by journeys to Mars.

Space Shuttle Return to Flight

Langley wind tunnel and computer-based studies of orbiter aerothermodynamics (aero-heating) helped in understanding the conditions that led to the loss of Columbia. Langley contributed key engineering support to the return to flight effort, including development of thermal protection system on-orbit repair materials and methods, support of wing leading-edge sensor system development, compiling a database of reinforced carboncarbon impact tolerance, and nondestructive evaluation of shuttle subsystems and external tank foam insulation. Langley staff developed an infrared camera for on-orbit reinforced carbon-carbon inspection. Langley is also helping to determine the cause of foam loss during STS-114, the shuttle mission in the summer of 2005. See for more about Langley's Return to Flight activities.

Crew Exploration Vehicle

The Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) combines the best of Apollo and the Shuttle launch vehicle. The CEV will carry four astronauts to the moon, fly up to six astronauts on future Mars missions, and deliver crew and supplies to the International Space Station. Shaped like Apollo, the capsule will be three times larger. Solar panels will provide power to CEV systems. Liquid methane engines will power both the capsule and the lunar lander. The craft will parachute to dry land, with a splashdown as a backup. After heat shield replacement, the craft will launch again, up to 10 times.

Apollo was limited to landing near the moon's equator; the CEV will be able to land anywhere on the moon. Langley's expertise is vital in developing the CEV. Langley will lead development of a landing system and an unpressurized cargo delivery vehicle. Langley researchers will also support development of guidance, navigation, and control; flight mechanics for ascent and launch abort; heat shields; a docking system; and a parachute landing system.

For the launch vehicle that will take the CEV into space, Langley will lead aerodynamic studies and database development. Langley will also support aerodynamic systems and loads analyses, aeroelasticity tests, and vehicle structural health monitoring. Langley will also lead the systems analysis and support activities such as re-entry analysis and communication analysis. For more information see

Artist concept of crew exploration vehicle docked with lander and departure stage in earth orbit.Image above. Artist concept of crew exploration vehicle docked with lander and departure stage in earth orbit. Credit: NASA

Exploring Mars and Beyond

Langley is also developing technology that will one day be used to take astronauts to Mars or send spacecraft to explore other planets, moons, comets, and more. Langley is looking at space propulsion with solar sails and aerocapture techniques, along with systems analysis studies. Researchers are also working on Mars Orbital Debris Analysis Codes (MOrDAC) and spectrometer studies of the Mars subsurface. Langley successfully led Mars atmospheric entry, descent, and landing of the rovers Spirit and Opportunity. This expertise, as well as aeroassist expertise will also be needed for the Mars Science Laboratory, Phoenix, Stardust, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The Future

The development of a safe and efficient crewed spacecraft is a complex and exacting exercise. So much so that only three nations in the world - Russia, the United States, and China - have launched humans into space. The European Space Agency has an extensive uncrewed launch program. Such diverse countries as Japan, India, Pakistan, and Brazil have a strong interest in building a robust space program. The future of our space capability depends on the investment we make today.

NASA Langley Research Center
Hampton, Virginia 23681