It Began Because He Was Crazy About Airplanes
By: Jim Hodges

On a Saturday in late May in 1958, Roy Harris graduated from Georgia Tech.

A Saturday later, he got married.

Two Saturdays after that, he and his new bride rented a small trailer, loaded it and drove to his first job, at Langley Memorial Research Center, the cornerstone of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics.

He left the center 40 years later, 10 years ago.

Roy Harris.

Roy Harris spent 40 years at NASA's Langley Research Center, all of them working in aeronautics. Photo credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Click on image for a larger size

"We only needed about a quarter of that trailer," Harris said Tuesday, chuckling just before going behind a podium to speak to a Reid Conference Center audience about aeronautics as part of NASA's 50th anniversary celebration colloquium series.

Three months after Harris came to work at Langley, NASA replaced NACA as his employer, but he found his work changed little as a result. The agency's focus quickly moved to space, but Harris' was on aeronautics because of a childhood dream.

"From my earliest years, I was crazy about airplanes," he said. "I learned to fly in high school."

At NASA, he wanted to work on them, to make them fly higher and faster and longer, and for less money. In a career that began with his doing technical work on supersonic transport aircraft and ended with his being director of aeronautics and Langley assistant director for research and engineering, he watched most of the agency's efforts with airplanes.

Harris outlined many of them for the Reid Center audience, from the X-15, which began as a NACA project and flew at Mach 6.7 as one of NASA's first successes, to blunt body lifts that have transferred well to the space shuttle. From Dick Whitcomb's work with supercritical airfoils to enhance flight, and winglets to make it cheaper. From composites for lighter, less-expensive-to-fly aircraft, to an independent study that was the forerunner of the F-15 military jet.

From programs that started, then stopped from a lack of funding, to a program of the future, featuring the laminar flow wing.

"I think the laminar flow can have more effect on fuel consumption than anything that is is yet to be realized," Harris said of the potential of the invention.

He takes issue with the notion that aeronautics is a "mature science."

"Look at the changes we're dealing with now," he said. "The whole world depends on products delivered by air. Just about any trip over 500 miles is done on an airplane, and the number of people who fly in airplanes doubles every 15 years.

"NASA is looking at NEXTGen (the next generation of air traffic control), but NEXTGen is already here. NASA needs to look at the NEXTGen after that, and the one after that, too."

In the audience was Jaiwon Shin, head of NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. Three hours earlier, he had talked to many of the same people about the agency's work in "green" aviation, an effort Harris supports with enthusiasm.

"We've seen the end of cheap and plentiful oil," Harris said.

He also points to the United States' trade surplus in aeronautics, and adds, "if we're going to stay a world power, we've got to invest in technologies. Aeronautics is one of them."

In that, he also supports NASA's demand that aeronautical research be in "the fundamentals."

"If you're not going to do everything you need to do, you have to protect the fundamentals so that you're ready to do more when you have the resources," Harris said.

He's seen aeronautical research when funding was plentiful and when it wasn't. Would he do those 40 years all over again?

At first, Harris spoke with some doubt, then reality set in: "If I was 20 again, and I was still crazy about airplanes …"

NASA Langley Research Center
Managing Editor: Jim Hodges
Executive Editor and Responsible NASA Official: H. Keith Henry
Editor and Curator: Denise Lineberry