Celebrating the Legacy of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics Written 12 March 2015
By Duane Hyland, AIAA Communications (2008–2017)
On the evening of 3 March, nearly 400 members of the aerospace community—representing government, industry, and academia—came together at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding, on 3 March 1915, of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Speakers for the evening were: Gen. John “Jack” Dailey, USMC (Ret.), director of the museum; John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Mike Griffin, Immediate Past President of AIAA and former administrator of NASA; Robie Samanta-Roy, vice president, Technology and Innovation, Lockheed Martin; and Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden Jr., USMC (Ret.), the current NASA administrator.
While each of the speakers had a different perspective, one theme flowed throughout all the remarks – without NACA, its staff, and the research performed by the organization, modern aviation would not be as we know it. Bolden pointed out that without NACA’s work, aviation would not be the economic powerhouse it is today – “generating $1.5 trillion dollars in revenue and sustaining 11 million jobs.”
Holdren pointed out that NACA and its innovations in engine cowlings, air foils, blunt body styles for spacecraft and work on supersonic flight sped “the development of flight, from the Wright Brothers to Apollo 11 in less a century.” He told attendees that “NACA was one of the first examples of how public and private partnerships, which continue today, worked – with NACA working alongside early aircraft manufacturers” to solve pressing problems of flight performance, and to create so many of the flight components and systems that advanced aviation safety and performance.
Lockheed Martin’s Samanta-Roy noted that “aeronautics is the key to America’s success,” stressing that the work that NACA did on advancing aeronautics, “at a time when aerospace was considered a passing fad,” was key to that success. Griffin discussed the strong links between AIAA’s predecessor organization the Institute of Aeronautical Science (IAS) and NACA, including one IAS President, James “Jimmy” Doolittle who also served as director of NACA, and the three AIAA Honorary Fellows who also served as directors of NACA: William Durand, Joseph Ames, and Jerome Hunsaker. Additionally, Griffin pointed out that no less than six AIAA Honorary Fellows served on NACA’s Special Committee on Space Technology: H. Julian Allen, Robert Gilruth, H. Gyford Stever, Hugh Dryden, Abe Silversteen, and Wernher von Braun.
Bolden told the audience that NASA “truly stands on the shoulders of giants,” praising the men and women of NACA for all the work they did in advancing flight. He concluded by reminding the audience that NASA still performs groundbreaking work in aeronautics and that he was “confident that 100 years from now, his successor would stand in this very spot to extoll all of the technological advances made from now until then,” largely due to the pursuit of “innovation” started by NACA and continued by NASA.
The evening also saw the debut of the video “The NACA at 100: Advancing the Science of Flight,” an eight-minute film highlighting NACA’s history. The video pointed out that “every single American aircraft that saw service in World War 2 was wind tunnel tested in NACA facilities,” one of the first examples of a public-private partnership. It also noted that NACA was on the forefront of workforce diversity, such as during World War II when “ African American women [were hired] as ‘computers,’” or mathematicians involved in analyzing test data. The video drove home the point that “while NASA was created in 1958, it was born in 1915.”
The ceremony ended with the official presentation to the National Air and Space Museum of the “NACA Wings” sign, taken from a NACA wind tunnel installation. While the sign has been on loan to the museum for some time, the official transfer now makes the museum the sign’s permanent home, preserving its, and NACA’s, legacy forever.
AIAA proudly served as the event’s organizer. Industry sponsors for the evening were: Platinum: Lockheed Martin Corporation. Gold: Aerojet Rocketdyne, The Boeing Company, Jacobs, Northrop Grumman, Orbital ATK, SGT, and United Technologies Corporation. Silver: Exelis and GE Aviation. Bronze: The Aerospace Corporation, Aerospace Industries Association, Booz Allen Hamilton, Performance Associates, SAIC. Patron: ARES Corporation, Aurora Flight Sciences, CACI International, Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation, Paragon Space Development Corporation, Purdue University, Schafer Corporation, Sierra Lobo, SpaceX, and the University of Colorado Boulder.