The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA — with each letter pronounced individually) came into being, much like its successor organization, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), in response to the success of others. Even though the Wright brothers had been the first to make a powered airplane flight in 1903, by the beginning of World War I in 1914, the United States lagged behind Europe in airplane technology. In order to catch up, Congress founded the NACA on March 3, 1915, as an independent government agency reporting directly to the President. Its enacting legislation was attached as a rider to the Naval Appropriation Bill for that year. Unlike NASA, the NACA began almost without anyone noticing. It started simply, with a chairman, Brigadier General George Scriven, chief of the Army’s Signal Corps, a main committee of 12 members representing the government, military, and industry, an executive committee with 7 members, chosen from the main committee, and one employee, John F. Victory. Committee members were not paid and served only in an advisory capacity, meeting a few times a year to direct the aim of the new organization. Initially, the task of the committee was to coordinate efforts already underway across the nation. However, its mission and workforce soon grew to cover a greater role in aeronautics research in the U.S.
Establishing Research Facilities
While not originally intended to administer its own laboratories, the NACA’s expanding role led to the creation of its first research and testing facility in 1920, the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory. The NACA’s personnel expanded as well. The new laboratory employed a staff of 11 technicians and 4 professionals and, by 1925, the staff had grown to over 100 employees. The NACA’s main committee added the positions of executive officer, held by George Lewis, in 1919, and secretary, in 1921, held by John F. Victory.
During the late 1910s and the 1920s, the NACA conducted many types of flight tests, involving both models and full-scale aircraft. Many of the test flights took place in a series of wind tunnels the NACA developed. Advances, such as the NACA cowling, for which the NACA won the Collier Trophy in 1929, and streamlining studies to improve the aerodynamics of aircraft resulted in greatly increased aircraft speed and range. Throughout the next three decades, the NACA continued to expand its influence in the field of aviation by recruiting top notch engineers and scientists to work in ever larger and more advanced technological facilities.
Reshaped by War
The NACA began to hit its stride in the 1930s and 1940s, when the threat and reality of a new world war forced rapid development and testing of new aircraft and the addition of two new laboratories, the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory in 1940 and the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory, or “the Cleveland laboratory,” in 1941. (This laboratory was later renamed the Lewis Research Center and is now NASA’s Glenn Research Center.) During this period, using wind tunnel testing, the NACA developed airfoil shapes for wings and propellers, which simplified aircraft design. The shapes eventually found their way into the designs of many U.S. aircraft of the time, including a number of important World War II-era aircraft, such as the P-51 Mustang.
Seeking Supersonic Flight
After World War II, the NACA began to work on the goal of supersonic flight. To further this goal, an adjunct facility to Langley, NACA Muroc Unit, was established in California at the Air Force’s Muroc Field (later renamed Edwards Air Force Base). The NACA worked closely with the U.S. Air Force and Bell Aircraft to design the first supersonic aircraft. This collaboration marked a significant departure for the NACA. It had never before dealt with the initial design and construction of a research plane. This change in policy was a successful one. The NACA made a number of contributions to the design, including a changed tail.
The first supersonic flight took place in 1947 in an experimental airplane, the X-1, piloted by Captain Charles “Chuck” Yeager and monitored by NACA personnel. This supersonic flight paved the way for further research into supersonic aircraft, leading to the development of swept wings as well as a new shape for aircraft.
In 1951, Richard Whitcomb, a NACA engineer, invented the concept of the area rule, which required trimming or indenting the midsection of an airplane’s fuselage in the area where the wing joined it. The resulting “Coke bottle” look decreased drag and made it easier for a plane to go supersonic. The appearance of most modern combat aircraft, especially fighters, is a result of this breakthrough.
During the 1950s, as the Cold War deepened, the NACA devoted more and more time and research to missile technology. It was responsible for developing the tactics and designs for the reentry of space vehicles. Initially, the focus was on missile warheads, but later was applied to the possibility of manned vehicles. The NACA expanded once again, adding a site for launching rocket-propelled airplane models for high-speed tests at Wallops Island.
Looking Toward Space
At the same time, the NACA began to look ahead to the possibility of manned space flight. In the late 1950s, the NACA developed a plan that called for a blunt-body spacecraft that would reenter with a heat shield, a worldwide tracking network, and dual controls that would gradually give the pilot of the craft greater control. All of these would become part of the space program, but not under the NACA.
On 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite. In 1958, responding to the nations’ fear of falling behind the Soviets in the utilization and exploration of outer space, Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, which formed a new civilian space agency, NASA. The NACA officially turned over operations to NASA on October 1, 1958. The new agency would be responsible for civilian human, satellite, and robotic space programs, as well as aeronautical research. The NACA and its missions and projects were incorporated into the new agency. Other programs and facilities from existing agencies, most notably the Army’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, Alabama (now the Marshall Space Flight Center), were also incorporated into NASA. Many of the NACA’s personnel took high level positions in NASA and were responsible for the earliest decisions regarding the human space program.
Between its founding in 1915 and its incorporation into NASA in 1958, the NACA accomplished many technological feats. It was a major force for technological change in aeronautics. The NACA’s efforts were in a large part responsible for turning the American airplane from slow cloth-and-wood biplanes of the World War I era into the jets of today. The foundations of NASA and the success of its many missions rest squarely on the cornerstone of the NACA’s organizational and technical expertise.