Despite the Wright Brothers’ pioneering powered flight of 1903, the United States lagged behind Europe in airplane technology when World War I broke out eleven years later. That’s when Congress created the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the NACA, on 3 March 1915. Its mission: to co-ordinate aeronautics research already underway in the US. However, the NACA’s mission and workforce soon grew to conduct its own research.
From 1917 through 1958, it was responsible for many significant achievements in aviation history. Among them: the construction in 1922 at the then-named Langley Memorial Aeronautics Laboratory in Virginia of the variable-density wind tunnel. For the first time, the NACA’s researchers could compress air and simulate high-altitude flying. This provided aircraft manufacturers with accurate data for producing better aircraft. The NACA also provided invaluable support for America’s effort in World War II. The addition of two new laboratories, the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory at Moffett Field, California, the future Ames Research Centre, and the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory in Cleveland, today’s Glenn Research Centre, helped test and develop no fewer than 137 different aircraft between 1941 and 1945.
The NACA’s post-war focus was on supersonic flight, beginning with the success of Chuck Yeager and the X-1 flights at the NACA Muroc Unit, later re-named the Dryden Flight Research Cnetre at Edwards Air Force Base, California.
In 1958, with the Soviet Union rapidly developing a space programme, the NACA’s mission and projects were incorporated into a new agency responsible for, not only aeronautical research, but also civilian human, satellite and robotic space programmes: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Nasa.