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NASA's Mission Has Roots in Kitty Hawk
On December 17, 2003, this nation celebrated the first century of flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The day's events commemorated the accomplishments of Wilbur and Orville Wright, and the century of aerospace achievements they launched. Aerospace heroes Neil Armstrong, Buzz Alrdin and John Glenn attended the festivities, which included an extensive NASA exhibit, and an attempted reenactment of the historic first flight.

Leading the centennial celebrations, President Bush told a crowd at Kitty Hawk that "the Wright brothers' invention belongs to the world, but the Wright Brothers belong to America."

Bush also mentioned NASA accomplishments from frequent space travel to exploration of Mars to the accomplishments of the Voyager spacecraft. "By our own skill and daring," Bush said, "we will continue to lead the world in flight."

For more information about the celebrations, visit

http://www.centennialofflight.gov or http://www.firstflightcentennial.org

Aeronautical Heritage of Today's NASA

The Wright brothers gave the world "powered flight" in 1903. World War I was already speeding up aeronautical developments when Congress created the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in 1915. With Orville Wright as one of the first members, the NACA had a mandate "to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight, with a view to their practical solution."

In the 1920s and 1930s, the NACA engineers applied science to early aircraft. A significant early technological breakthrough -- the engine cowling -- greatly reduced aircraft drag and improved speed and range. The American aviation industry leapfrogged this NACA invention with improvements that made the fast and powerful piston engines of the 1940s practical. American aeronautical expertise thrived during and after World War II, thanks in part to the body of work created by the NACA engineers and research pilots.

Ever-increasing speeds in the 1940s pushed aircraft out in front of technology as airplanes encountered violent shock waves at just under the speed of sound -- caused by compressibility of the air as speeds approached Mach 1. Collaboration between the Air Force, industry, and the NACA conquered supersonic flight in 1947 when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier.

United States Air Force X-15 aircraft. Photo credit: USAF Image left: The rocket powered X-15 aircraft flew at the edge of space by the late 1950s. Photo credit: USAF.

The NACA research helped boost American fliers ever higher and faster during the 1950s. Space beckoned; the launch of the world's first satellite by the Soviet Union in October 1957 galvanized this interest.

A year later, Congress enacted the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, which transformed the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The newly formed NASA led the development of the Mercury manned spacecraft in preparation for a human landing on the Moon, as well as the planning for unmanned probes within the solar system. By the late 1950s, the rocket-powered X-15 had the capability to reach an altitude of 250,000 feet -- enabling NASA to touch the edge of space with a winged aircraft. (For more on NASA's history visit the 45th anniversary Flash Feature).

By the 1970s, NASA aeronautics research tackled practical problems: supercritical wing design that provided fuel efficiency for transports at high-subsonic speeds, winglets at the wingtips that further increased efficiency, and computer-driven fly-by-wire control technology -- the foundation of high performance aircraft today. NASA also participated in jet thrust vectoring research that enabled aircraft to maneuver with agility not previously possible.

Today, NASA researchers are working to solve stubborn aeronautical hurdles. NASA explores computers and satellite technology in order to increase engine efficiency, permit flexible airplanes to fly more like birds, and safely accommodate new traffic levels in the airspace.

Within the span of a century, we progressed from the Wright brothers' first flight to human footsteps on the Moon, a reusable Space Shuttle, and a permanently inhabited laboratory in space. We've witnessed quite a remarkable century marked by amazing technological achievements. If you live near the birthplace of powered flight in North Carolina, join us as we celebrate 100 years of flight.

Curtis Peebles and Frederick A. Johnsen
Dryden Flight Research Center