The NACA's mission was "to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution." This meant that the NACA was to treat aeronautics not so much as a scientific discipline, but as an area for engineering research and development.
Construction of Langley Field actually began in 1917, but the chaos of mobilizing for war in Europe delayed completion of the NACA's facilities for three years. In 1920, Langley's first operational wind tunnel laboratory came online.
By 1931, NACA Langley was generally acknowledged to be the world's premier aeronautical research establishment.
That year, Langley's Full-Scale Tunnel began operations, joining the ingenious Variable-Density Tunnel and Propeller Research Tunnel and completing a set of research facilities that outperformed any other single collection of facilities in the world. Thanks to the reliable data resulting from intelligent use of Langley's unique complex of experimental equipment, American aircraft began to dominate the world's airways.
NACA researchers found practical ways to improve many different varieties of aircraft. During World War II, they tested virtually all types of American combat aircraft. By enhancing performance — a few miles per hour of speed; a few extra miles of range — NACA work made the difference between Allied victory and defeat in the air.
After the war, NACA researchers turned their attention to the high-speed frontier and solved many of the basic problems blocking the flight of aircraft to supersonic speeds. They played essential roles in the development of several experimental high-speed research airplanes including Bell's X-1, the first plane to break the sound barrier, and North American's X-15, the first winged aircraft to fly into space.
The NACA flourished as a federal agency until the autumn of 1958, when it was formally abolished. In truth, however, much about the NACA lived on. Its laboratories and their staffs, although reorganized, formed the nucleus for the new space agency.
The rest is history — NASA history.
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.
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.
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.
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 Space Task Group conceived and managed Project Mercury, the nation's first human-in-space program. The Mercury 7 astronauts trained at Langley until 1963, when they and the Space Task Group moved to Houston, Texas, and formed the core of what would become the Johnson Space Center.
Langley made major contributions to the Gemini, Apollo and Skylab missions.
Its realistic rendezvous and docking simulators helped astronauts perfect maneuvers critical to the success of the Gemini and Apollo projects.
A team of Langley engineers vigorously championed the lunar orbit rendezvous mission mode that many experts say made meeting President Kennedy's goal of landing humans on the moon by the end of the 1960s possible.
Images collected by Langley-designed Lunar Orbiter missions were a key to the successful Apollo lunar landings.
Langley's Lunar Landing Research Facility trained Neil Armstrong and others to land on the moon.
In many ways Viking matched — and in some ways even surpassed — the challenges and adventure of Apollo. Langley managed Viking from 1968 until 1978, nearly two years after the landings, when the program was turned over to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Langley's Viking legacy can be seen even today in our work on entry, descent and landing technologies in recent Mars missions such as Mars Pathfinder, the Mars Exploration Rovers and Mars Science Laboratory.
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.
Langley researchers pioneered the concept of the boost glider and led development of the X-15, America's first hypersonic transatmospheric vehicle.
Langley was deeply involved in the development and testing of NASA's Space Shuttle. Even before it could be flown, the Shuttle had to be put through thousands of hours of wind tunnel testing and other rigorous experiments. Much of this was done at Langley. And when it came time for NASA to return to flight after the Challenger and Columbia accidents Langley engineers once again answered the call to help solve what went wrong.
Long before plans for today's International Space Station got under way, Langley scientists and engineers realized the advantages of a laboratory in space for scientific experiments, communications, astronomical observation, manufacturing, and as a relay base for lunar and planetary missions. They began to explore the problems of designing and operating such a facility in the 1960s. This early brainstorming and testing provided a solid basis for NASA's development of the space station. Today Langley employees continue to investigate the technologies for large space structures.
Langley Research Center never forgot that the first "A" in NASA stood for "aeronautics." Langley engineers and scientists have led the way in supersonics research with programs in the 1960s and 1990s to develop a national supersonic transport. That work is now part of efforts to design a low boom flight demonstrator that could allow jets to fly at supersonic speeds over land.
Langley also kept the dream of hypersonic flight — more than five times the speed of sound — alive. This research, which linked back to studies made at Langley as early as the 1950s, found application in the Langley-led National Aero-Space Plane (NASP) program, which was to create the technology base for an entirely new family of aerospace vehicles capable of flying at high Mach numbers to the edges of the atmosphere and beyond. The NASP program was discontinued in the early 1990s, but Langley continued hypersonic research in the 2000s with the X-43A, which achieved nearly 7,000 miles an hour, setting an official world speed record for a jet-powered aircraft.
Langley research has led not only to faster planes, but also safer ones. Engineers have focused on improving all types of aircraft – from small planes to rotorcraft to transport airplanes. Langley flight tests to improve lightning protection and wind shear detection have enhanced airliners. Langley crash tests of aircraft and development of aviation safety technologies have contributed to making flying the safest mode of transportation.
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
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
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)
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
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
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.
–Katherine Johnson, Research Mathematician
–Tom Crouch, Smithsonian Institution