Today marks the centennial of the founding of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the agency that would eventually evolve into NASA. Its establishment represents the United States government's first serious efforts to explore the skies and space, forming the bedrock of the thriving contemporary American space community.
The creation of the NACA represents one of those classic "giant leap" moments in space history. But interestingly enough, its potential wasn't recognized at the time of its conception at all. In fact, according to aviation and spaceflight historian Roger E. Bilstein, it was basically a politically expedient afterthought.
"The enabling legislation for the NACA slipped through almost unnoticed as a rider attached to the Naval Appropriation Bill, on 3 March 1915," Bilstein wrote in his book Orders of Magnitude: A History of the NACA and NASA, 1915-1990. "It was a traditional example of American political compromise."
This is understandable given the geopolitical climate of in 1915. Despite the early successes of the Wright brothers, Americans were lagging behind Europe when it came to aviation. From a military and scientific standpoint, it made sense to get up to speed on such revolutionary emerging technologies. Many public figures supported the formation of NACA, including Franklin D. Roosevelt who was then the Assistant Secretary of the Navy.
However, President Woodrow Wilson didn't want to greenlight anything that seemed to threaten the United States's status of nonintervention in the First World War. He believed establishing a national aviation and aeronautics laboratory was such a breach of neutrality, and so the act that formed NACA was slipped into the Naval Appropriation Bill to avoid notice.
Wilson granted the newly formed committee fairly modest resources after its inception, including an annual budget of $5,000, or about $116,000 adjusted for inflation. The money was to be handled by an inaugural group of about 20 individuals led by Brigadier General George Scriven.
In 1917, Wilson finally relented, and authorized the construction of a laboratory for the NACA. The facility included an atmospheric wind tunnel and a dynamometer laboratory, and was dedicated as the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1920. Langley had a staff of only 11 people at the start; today its successor, NASA's Langley Research Center, employs well over 3,000.
During the interwar period, the NACA carved out a profitable niche by designing ever more sophisticated aircraft. For example, its researchers developed an influential aerodynamic design known as NACA cowling that dramatically reduced the drag on planes, thus increasing fuel efficiency. The widespread implementation of this concept produced aircraft that could fly much farther, longer, and faster.
The committee scored several other major aviation home runs in its half-century history. The NACA duct, introduced in 1945, prevented engine overheating by channeling cool air through key systems. Originally used to boost circulation in aircraft, these ducts are now also a staple of race car design and other heat-sensitive mechanical systems. Among the NACA's other greatest hits were its ultra-efficient airfoils (wing shapes), which are still used on some modern fighter jets, as well as the committee's pioneering work with supersonic flight during the 1950s.
As you can see, most of the NACA's big wins were related to aircraft, rather than spacecraft. Most rocket scientists working in the 1920s and 1930s conducted research at academic institutions or private labs, and the NACA had no explicitly stated intentions to develop its own cadre of space specialists.
But as advances in rocketry accelerated leading up to the Second World War, the committee began to take spaceflight more seriously. The American investment in space research was almost entirely a military endeavor at first, aimed at producing high caliber missiles like the devastatingly lethal V-2 missile unleashed by the Nazis as a WWII "vengeance weapon."
These German missiles were the first human-made objects ever to enter outer space; sadly, humanity's first contact with the outside universe had less to do with exploration than it did with civilian annihilation. But in a weird twist of fate, the mastermind behind the V-2, Wernher von Braun, would also be the driving force behind the Apollo lunar landings some two decades later, after the NACA had been bolstered, and given a new name and direction.
When it became clear the Nazis were going to lose the war, von Braun surreptitiously arranged the surrender of himself and hundreds of his top rocket scientists to the United States as a part of a secret initiative called Operation Paperclip. The Truman administration agreed to overlook the team's unsavory past, but in exchange, von Braun and his team were expected to build an American space program as sophisticated as any in the world.
And oh, how they delivered. Von Braun is rightly a controversial figure, but there's no denying that the man got results as soon as he was integrated into the NACA. Not only did he spearhead the development of powerful liquid-fuel rockets, culminating in the Apollo program's Saturn V, he was also a beloved science communicator. His 1955 television collaboration with Walt Disney, called Man in Space, was one of the most popular specials in history, attracting 42 million viewers.
Indeed, despite von Braun's central role in the development of the V-2, he was much more interested in space exploration and off-Earth civilian colonization than he was with building better weapons (not that he quit that line of work once he was stateside, mind you). So when the Soviets shocked the world by launching Sputnik on October 4, 1957, von Braun was ready to take charge of the new era of American rocketry.
The NACA, however, was woefully unprepared for Sputnik. President Dwight Eisenhower recognized that the 42-year-old committee would need a substantive mid-century upgrade if it had any hope of competing with the advanced Soviet space program.
On July 29, 1958, he signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, establishing NASA as the dominant American space agency (incidentally, DARPA was also founded in 1958, in response to Sputnik). By October 1958, all of the NACA's resources and employees had been integrated under this new banner, which remains among the most forceful leaders in spaceflight to this day.
It's sobering to think of the enormous advances NASA, and by extension the NACA, has accomplished in only 100 years. When March 3, 1915 rolled by, the first Wright Brothers flights were still a complete novelty, and the notion of traveling beyond Earth would have seemed quixotic to most.
But in the ensuing decades, NASA has sent humans to the Moon, rovers to Mars, and spacecraft into interstellar space, all while pioneering countless new technologies. In fact, NASA is itself currently experiencing another big shift in direction and focus, similar to the sea change that dissolved the NACA in 1958.
To keep competitive, NASA has outsourced much of the astrodynamic legwork to the private space industry, most famously subsidizing companies like SpaceX to complete cargo runs to and from International Space Station.
If that trend continues, NASA may revert back to more of an advisory role, similar to that of the early NACA. It may end up limiting its role to overseeing and awarding contracts to non-governmental facilities, rather than pursuing its own missions in-house. The evolution of American spaceflight is far from over, after all, and NASA is no longer the only player in the game.
To that point, the centennial of the day America's dreams of conquering space raises an evocative question: What will the next century of American space exploration bring? If it is anywhere near as momentous and action-packed as the first century has been, then we are all in for a serious thrill ride.