A U.S. government organization formed to promote the scientific development of aircraft and flight.
Established in 1915, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) promoted the scientific advancement of aircraft at a time when U.S. technological prowess in the field was declining. Although the Wright brothers had pioneered powered flight in 1903, both private and government research in aircraft technology declined in the United States over the following decade. Although flight was considered by many Americans to be an impressive technical achievement, many others considered flight an often-dangerous passing fad. Unreliable engines and haphazard construction led to many deaths, and many people believed powered flight to be a science that was ahead of its time. During this period, various European designers emerged as the leaders in aerospace research, and the United States’ early lead in aircraft development disappeared.
With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the U.S. government, pondering the possibility of U.S. involvement in the war, came to the realization that the United States could not produce the advanced aircraft needed to wage modern warfare. Although prewar European and U.S. military planners had considered the use of aircraft merely as observation platforms, as the war progressed, airplanes were used for increasingly important tasks, such as air defense and bombing.
Under pressure to prepare the United States for a possible war, Congress established NACA as a branch of the Smithsonian Institute on March 3, 1915. The administration of President Woodrow Wilson, afraid that American citizens would consider NACA a purely military facility at a time of neutrality, added the proposal for NACA funds as a rider on the annual naval appropriations bill. NACA was originally limited to a $5,000 annual budget and twelve unpaid staffers who directed research projects at the Smithsonian and various university facilities. However, NACA’s contributions to wartime research, most notably the development of the ubiquitous JN-4 Jenny aircraft, earned the institution a long-term future as an institution separate from the Smithsonian and the creation of a permanent research facility of its own. Constructed in the middle of swampy ground owned by the U.S. Army north of Norfolk, Virginia, NACA’s first facility, the Samuel Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, known simply as “Langley,” opened in 1920. The new laboratory boasted four buildings and a full-time staff of eleven.
In the post-World War I era, NACA grew at an extremely slow pace. Postwar disillusionment and pro-neutrality sentiments reduced the amount of military-related research that was conducted at Langley. Also, the low pay associated with government employment relative to that of the private sector, coupled with Langley’s remote location, led many engineers to accept jobs elsewhere. Despite its limitations, however, NACA continued to make significant scientific breakthroughs. Although military research lagged, the number of civilian aircraft boomed in the 1920’s, due to the large number of surplus military aircraft, interest generated by traveling air shows and wing-walkers, and the exploits of civilian pilots, such as Howard Hughes and Charles A. Lindbergh. Driven by the growth of the civilian aircraft market, NACA made several contributions to aircraft development and technology. For instance, NACA pioneered the use of specially trained test pilots. Although other institutions had used full-time pilots, NACA was the first to employ pilots with backgrounds in engineering to identify problems in the air as well as on the ground. Langley’s labs also developed advanced wind tunnels that measured precise aircraft takeoff and landing speeds. By 1931, Langley boasted the largest wind tunnel in the United States, capable of conducting tests on full-sized aircraft instead of scale models. NACA’s wind tunnels proved particularly valuable in the development of early airliners, planes too large for their manufacturers to test themselves. These aircraft, the Boeing 247 and Douglas DC-1, pioneered civilian air travel before World War II, and the development of these two planes formed the backbone of commercial air travel after the war.
NACA also developed an innovative aerodynamic engine cowl that greatly reduced drag on the early piston-powered aircraft. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, the biggest goal of aircraft designers was speed, and European aircraft designers opted for complex liquid-cooled engines to boost top speed. The NACA cowl, however, boosted speed by reducing drag, permitting U.S. manufacturers to use less complex and less expensive air-cooled engines. Although NACA grew slowly during the 1920’s and 1930’s, the organization’s contributions during this period ensured its long-term future and greatly aided the U.S. war effort in World War II.
If World War I had provided the motivation for the creation of NACA, World War II proved the value of its research facilities. As it had in World War I, the United States began World War II with aircraft that were less capable than those of its enemies. NACA faced the task of improving the United States’ air arm as quickly as possible. Toward this end, NACA expanded its presence and roles to aid the war effort. In addition to new facilities at Langley, NACA constructed new specialized laboratories in other parts of the country. In 1939, NACA opened a laboratory at the U.S. Army Air Corps base at Moffett Field, south of San Francisco, California. NACA’s Moffett Field facility tapped into the pool of skilled engineers on the West Coast and was situated close to the region’s developing aircraft industry. In 1940, the West Coast lab was renamed the Ames Aeronautical Research Laboratory in honor of NACA’s long-time director. In the same year, NACA opened a propulsion research lab in Cleveland, Ohio, to support research in engine development in conjunction with the major engine manufacturers in the Midwest. In 1948, the Cleveland facility became the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory.
The new laboratory and propulsion laboratories proved their worth by improving upon the new aircraft types introduced during the war. NACA wind tunnels allowed for improvements to new fighters, such as the P-38 Lightning, by solving serious dive-instability problems and boosted the speed of the P-51 Mustang by introducing a laminar flow airfoil that moved air over the wing at peak efficiency. NACA’s participation in the development of Boeing’s B-29 bomber, particularly in aerodynamic and wing-loading issues, helped to expedite an advanced aircraft design into an effective weapon in only three years. During the war, NACA laboratories improved the performance of eighteen different warplanes, stretching speed, bomb load, and endurance beyond the capability of their original designs.
NACA also branched into the field of rocketry during World War II. Although earlier rocket pioneers such as Robert H. Goddard conducted research on their own, the widespread use of rockets during the war attracted NACA attention, both in the development of its own rocket designs and in the improvement of Army and Navy projects. Although NACA concentrated on the military applications of rockets, as bombardment weapons or air-to-air ordnance, late in the war, the agency began research in ballistic missiles that paved the way for future work.
Deserving of praise for its wartime contributions, NACA received some undeserved criticism when the United States turned to jet propulsion in the mid-1940’s. NACA conducted initial research on jet engines in the mid-1930’s, but found that contemporary manufacturing methods made the technology unfeasible. By World War II, however, British breakthroughs had made the jet a viable means of propulsion, and the British shared their innovation with their American allies. Instead of allowing NACA to develop the new engines, however, the U.S. Army gave General Electric, a private corporation, the development rights. Bell Aircraft received a contract to develop an airframe for the new jet engine, an airplane that eventually emerged as the XP-59. Bell, however, lacked NACA’s research capability, and the XP-59 could not match the performance of its European rivals, the British Gloster Meteor and German Me-262 aircraft. Because NACA had had a hand in the development of so many of U.S. wartime aircraft, many Army and aviation observers incorrectly believed that NACA had developed the XP-59 and had failed in the task. However, NACA knew nothing about the XP-59 until 1943, a full year after the aircraft’s first test flight.
Once involved in jet aircraft development, NACA’s facilities proved invaluable in integrating captured German data into the U.S. Air Force’s growing arsenal of jet warplanes. NACA wind tunnels provided aerodynamic data on swept-wing configurations that resulted in the advanced F-86 Sabre, the premier U.S. fighter of the Korean War. NACA’s wind tunnels also suggested solutions to the problem of shock waves that formed on wingtips near speeds of Mach 1, the mythical sound barrier. Using the ballistic data of a .50-caliber machine gun bullet, NACA collaborated with Bell Aircraft to build the X-1, the first in a series of legendary experimental aircraft. On October 14, 1947, test pilot Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager took the X-1 beyond Mach 1 and became the first pilot to break the sound barrier.
As aircraft broke the sound barrier with increasing frequency throughout the 1950’s, another problem, known as transonic drag, surfaced. Because subsonic aircraft shapes were inappropriate for supersonic flight, jet aircraft of the 1950’s continually failed to meet speed and altitude expectations in supersonic flight. NACA’s solution to transonic drag was to create a design element known as area ruling. Transonic drag occurred at the wings, where the mass of the airplane, the fuselage plus the wings, suddenly increased, and the air simply could not move out of the way quickly enough. Because airplane designers could not dispense with the craft’s wings, they had to make the fuselage thinner. On aircraft designed with area ruling, the fuselage narrowed as the wings spread, resulting in an airplane with an hourglass or Coca-Cola-bottle shape. With this innovation, aircraft speeds continued to rise, and engineers could predict aircraft performance beyond the sound barrier.
NACA’s early forays into rocketry beginning in World War II increased throughout the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. The United States acquired advanced rocket technology, along with jet propulsion, from the defeated Nazis, and began a series of rocket testing by several different agencies. The U.S. Army, having secured the services of the top German rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun, began rocket testing at the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama. At the same time, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force began their own rocket programs with the intent of developing nuclear delivery systems. In addition, the Smithsonian and the National Academy of Sciences developed rockets for scientific research.
NACA contributed to these military projects primarily by testing internal systems and lightweight materials. NACA’s role in the U.S. rocket program became preeminent, however, after October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first human-made Earth-orbiting satellite. Although Sputnik was a minor technical achievement, its launch created widespread public fears of Soviet atomic bombs raining down upon American cities from orbit, and the U.S. government demanded a response from its own rocket programs. The U.S. response to Sputnik, the first launch of the Navy’s Vanguard rocket, embarrassingly exploded on the launch pad on December 6, 1957. One month later, a smaller Army rocket known as Explorer 1 finally put a small satellite into orbit.
The public demand for a response to Sputnik, coupled with the inefficient system of multiple rocket programs, generated the idea of a single space agency, which NACA, as a civilian agency with advanced research labs, was in the best position to lead. Many Americans, particularly in Congress, worried that a military-led project would create only rockets for military use. Congress also blamed the various military rocket projects for allowing the Soviets to take the lead in rocket technology. Therefore, on July 29, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act into law. The law merged NACA with the various military rocket programs, scientific rocket projects, and several other government laboratories into a new entity to run the U.S. space program. On October 1, 1958, the newly amalgamated institutions became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Bilstein, Roger. Orders of Magnitude: A History of the NACA and NASA, 1915-1990. 3d ed. Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1989. A thorough history that emphasizes crewed flight. Hansen, James R. Engineer in Charge: A History of the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, 1917-1958. Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1987. A thorough history, at more than six hundred pages. Hartman, Edwin P. Adventures in Research: A History of the Ames Research Center, 1940-1965. Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1970. A book by an authority on the agency. Murray, Charles, and Catherine Bly Cox. Apollo: The Race to the Moon. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989. A definitive account of the Apollo Program from a behind-the-scenes perspective.
Howard R. Hughes
Samuel Pierpont Langley
Charles A. Lindbergh
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
World War I
World War II
The first meeting of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics on April 23, 1915. The committee promoted scientific advancement in aircraft from World War I until the onset of the space age in 1958.