Hampton, Virginia

A Storied Legacy, A Soaring Future

The NASA you know today was established in 1958. But its historical roots reach back to 1915 – just 12 years after the Wright Brothers' flight and two years before America's entry into World War I – when the U.S. Congress created the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA.

In 2017, NASA Langley Research Center will celebrate 100 years of excellence in aerospace achievements, scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs. Join us as we honor our rich history and look forward to our second century.
NASA Langley aircraft hangar
Variable Density Tunnel (VDT)
& the NACA Airfoils

Variable Density Tunnel (VDT)

Operational at Langley in 1922, the Variable Density Tunnel was the first pressurized wind tunnel in the world. It could achieve more realistic effects than any previous wind tunnel in predicting how actual aircraft would perform under flight conditions. NACA Report No. 460 — The Characteristics of 78 Related Airfoil Sections from Tests in the Variable-Density Wind Tunnel - was published in 1933.

Today the tunnel is a National Historic Landmark.

Full-Scale Tunnel
World War II Workhorse

Langley Full-Scale Tunnel

Langley's 30- by 60-Foot Tunnel — originally known as the Full-Scale Tunnel — was the largest wind tunnel in the world from 1931 until 1945. It tested everything from World War II fighters to submarines to the Mercury capsule to supersonic transport concepts and was operational for over 64 years.

In 1985, it was named a National Historic Landmark.

NACA Tunnel One

NACA Tunnel One

When the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (LMAL) was formed, the United States was far behind Europe in aeronautical technology. Langley’s first wind tunnel was essentially a replica of a 10-year-old British wind tunnel. Known as the 5-Foot Atmospheric Wind Tunnel, it was virtually obsolete even before it began operations. The AWT was dismantled in 1930 and was replaced in Building 60 by two new wind tunnels, the 5-Foot Vertical Tunnel and the 7- by 10-Foot Atmospheric Wind Tunnel.

Propeller Research Tunnel
& the NACA Cowling

Propeller Research Tunnel

The Propeller Research Tunnel was built in 1927 when NACA researchers tried to correlate their data with tests conducted at Stanford University. The radical design employed a 27-foot (8.23 meters), 8-bladed propeller powered by two diesel submarine engines from the Navy. The 20-foot (6.1 meter) stream of air reached 110 miles per hour (177 kph). The NACA Cowling was developed in this tunnel by NACA researcher Fred Weick.

The building was demolished in 1950 and replaced by the 8-Foot Transonic Pressure Tunnel.


Langley and NASA

When the NACA became the National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration (NASA) overnight on October 1, 1958, not much changed at first. Its staff and mission remained constant - to increase the country's knowledge and capability in a full range of aeronautical disciplines and in selected space disciplines.


Project Mercury

Mercury capsule in NASA Langley Full-Scale Tunnel

NASA Langley Research Center played a major role in Project Mercury from 1958 to 1963 including training the “Original 7” astronauts, project management, development of the Mercury spacecraft and its related systems, and creating a global spacecraft tracking network.

The objectives of the Mercury program, six manned flights from 1961 to 1963 and 20 unmanned flights were specific— orbit a manned spacecraft around the Earth, investigate man's ability to function in space and to recover both man and spacecraft safely.

+ Langley's Role in Project Mercury

Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous

John C. Houbolt explains the lunar orbit rendezvous concept

In the opinion of many space historians, NASA Langley's most important contribution to the Apollo Program was its development of the Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) concept. The brainchild of a few true believers at Langley, LOR's basic premise was to fire an assembly of three spacecraft into Earth orbit on top of a single powerful rocket. It would head to the moon, enter into orbit, and dispatch a small lander to the lunar surface.

+ The Rendezvous That Was Almost Missed

Lunar Landing Research Facility

Multiple-exposure image of nighttime lunar landing simulation at Langley's Lunar Landing Research Facility

This 240-foot high, 400-foot-long, 265-foot-wide A-frame steel structure was built in 1963 and was used to model lunar gravity. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and 22 other astronauts used the facility to practice piloting problems they would encounter in the last 150 feet (45.7 meters) of their descent to the surface of the moon.

NASA's gantry has come full circle. Today it's called the Landing and Impact Research Facility. We've added a water landing basin, and we're using it to test the Orion crew vehicle.

+ NASA's Gantry: Past, Present and Future Asset to Exploration
+ Orion Drop Test Series Begins (April 2016)

Earth Science

An illustration of the Earth's atmospheric aerosols process

In response to a growing concern for protection of our environment, Langley researchers began to develop ways to measure the atmosphere over Earth's oceans and continents, and to detect the presence of dangerous pollutants. Scientists continue to carefully monitor Earth's energy balance to answer ongoing questions about climate change, and will do so even more rigorously on upcoming missions.

+ Earth Science Research at NASA Langley
+ NASA Langley Science Directorate

Langley & the Space Shuttle

Model of Space Shuttle and SRB stack in NASA Langley's National Transonic Facility wind tunnel

Building on its strong tradition of research into the performance of winged flying vehicles as well as pioneering work on hypersonic gliders, the X-15 rocket plane, and other types of "space planes," Langley made vital contributions to NASA's Space Shuttle program. Highlights include about 60,000 hours of wind tunnel testing as well as extensive testing of shuttle main and nose landing gear.

In the wake of tragedy, Langley researchers contributed key engineering support to the agency's return-to-flight efforts.

+ NASA Langley Worked on Space Shuttle From Start

+ Langley Key Player in Shuttle Return to Flight Effort

Hypersonic Highlight
The X-43A 'Hyper-X' Vehicle

Mach 7 test of the full-scale X-43A/Hyper-X model with spare flight engine in Langley's 8-Foot High Temperature Tunnel

On November 16, 2004, NASA's unmanned Hyper-X aircraft reached Mach 9.6. The X-43A was boosted to an altitude of 33,223 meters (109,000 feet) by a Pegasus rocket launched from beneath a B52-B jet aircraft. The revolutionary 'scramjet' aircraft then burned its engine for around 10 seconds during its flight over the Pacific Ocean.

The Hyper-X program was conducted by NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate with Langley Research Center. Langley had responsibility for hypersonic technology development. The NASA Dryden Flight Research Center conducted the research and testing flights.

+ Hyper-X page
+ X-43A Flight Makes Aviation History (PDF) | Get Adobe Reader

NASA Langley Research Center Today


  • If a competition were held to determine that organization that had accomplished the largest number of advancements to aeronautical and aerospace progress, my nomination would be this place.

    –Neil Armstrong

  • We wrote our own textbook, because there was no other text about space. We just started from what we knew. We had to go back to geometry and figure all of this stuff out. Inasmuch as I was in at the beginning, I was one of those lucky people.

    –Katherine Johnson, Research Mathematician

  • Dick Whitcomb's intellectual fingerprints are on virtually every commercial aircraft flying today. It's fair to say he was the most important aerodynamic contributor in the second half of the century of flight.

    –Tom Crouch, Smithsonian Institution

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