The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) came into being, much like its successor organization, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), in response to the success of others. Even though the Wright brothers had been the first to make a powered airplane flight in 1903, by the beginning of World War I in 1914, the United States lagged behind Europe in airplane technology. In order to catch up, Congress founded NACA on 3 March 1915, as an independent government agency reporting directly to the President. Its enacting legislation was attached as a rider to the Naval Appropriation Bill for that year. Unlike NASA, NACA began almost without anyone noticing. It started simply, with a chairman, Brigadier General George Scriven, chief of the Army's Signal Corps, a main committee of 12 members representing the government, military, and industry, an executive committee with 7 members, chosen from the main committee, and one employee, John F. Victory. Committee members were not paid and served only in an advisory capacity, meeting a few times a year to direct the aim of the new organization. Initially, the task of the committee was to coordinate efforts already underway across the nation. However, its mission and workforce soon grew to cover a greater role in aeronautics research in the U.S.
While not originally intended to administer its own laboratories, NACA's expanding role led to the creation of its first research and testing facility in 1920, the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory. NACA's personnel expanded as well. The new laboratory employed a staff of 11 technicians and 4 professionals and, by 1925, the staff had grown to over 100 employees. NACA's main committee added the positions of executive officer, held by George Lewis, in 1919, and secretary, in 1921, held by John F. Victory.
During the late 1910s and the 1920s, NACA conducted many types of flight tests, involving both models and full-scale aircraft. Many of the test flights took place in a series of wind tunnels NACA developed. Advances, such as the NACA cowling, for which NACA won the Collier Trophy in 1929, and streamlining studies to improve the aerodynamics of aircraft resulted in greatly increased aircraft speed and range. Throughout the next three decades, NACA continued to expand its influence in the field of aviation by recruiting top notch engineers and scientists to work in ever larger and more advanced technological facilities.
NACA began to hit its stride in the 1930s and 1940s, when the threat and reality of a new world war forced rapid development and testing of new aircraft and the addition of two new laboratories, the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory in 1940 and the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory, or ãthe Cleveland laboratory,ä in 1941. (This laboratory was later renamed the Lewis Research Center.) During this period, using wind tunnel testing, NACA developed airfoil shapes for wings and propellers, which simplified aircraft design. The shapes eventually found their way into the designs of many U.S. aircraft of the time, including a number of important World War II-era aircraft, such as the P-51 Mustang.
After World War II, NACA began to work on the goal of supersonic flight. To further this goal, an adjunct facility to Langley, NACA Muroc Unit, was established in California at the Air Force's Muroc Field (later renamed Edwards Air Force Base). NACA worked closely with the U.S. Air Force and Bell Aircraft to design the first supersonic aircraft. This collaboration marked a significant departure for NACA. It had never before dealt with the initial design and construction of a research plane. This change in policy was a successful one. NACA made a number of contributions to the design, including a changed tail.
The first supersonic flight took place in 1947 in an experimental airplane, the X-1, piloted by Captain Charles Chuck Yeager and monitored by NACA personnel. This supersonic flight paved the way for further research into supersonic aircraft, leading to the development of swept wings as well as a new shape for aircraft.
In 1951, Richard Whitcomb, a NACA engineer, invented the concept of the area rule, which required trimming or indenting the midsection of an airplane's fuselage in the area where the wing joined it. The resulting Coke bottle look decreased drag and made it easier for a plane to go supersonic. The appearance of most modern combat aircraft, especially fighters, is a result of this breakthrough.
During the 1950s, as the Cold War deepened, NACA devoted more and more time and research to missile technology. It was responsible for developing the tactics and designs for the reentry of space vehicles. Initially, the focus was on missile warheads, but later was applied to the possibility of manned vehicles. NACA expanded once again, adding a site for launching rocket-propelled airplane models for high-speed tests at Wallops Island.
At the same time, NACA began to look ahead to the possibility of manned space flight. In the late 1950s, NACA developed a plan that called for a blunt-body spacecraft that would reenter with a heat shield, a worldwide tracking network, and dual controls that would gradually give the pilot of the craft greater control. All of these would become part of the space program, but not under NACA.
On 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite. In 1958, responding to the nations' fear of falling behind the Soviets in the utilization and exploration of outer space, Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, which formed a new civilian space agency, NASA. NACA officially turned over operations to NASA on 1 October 1958. The new agency would be responsible for civilian human, satellite, and robotic space programs, as well as aeronautical research. NACA and its missions and projects were incorporated into the new agency. Other programs and facilities from existing agencies, most notably the Army's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, Alabama (now the Marshall Space Flight Center), were also incorporated into NASA. Many of NACA's personnel took high level positions in NASA and were responsible for the earliest decisions regarding the human space program.
Between its founding in 1915 and its incorporation into NASA in 1958, NACA accomplished many technological feats. It was a major force for technological change in aeronautics. NACA's efforts were in a large part responsible for turning the American airplane from slow cloth-and-wood biplanes of the World War I era into the jets of today. The foundations of NASA and the success of its many missions rest squarely on the cornerstone of NACA's organizational and technical expertise.
Content Author: Elizabeth Suckow
Updated April 23, 2009