Willa Brown: Out from the Shadows of Aeronautical History

Willa B. Brown

Willa B. Brown

Willa Bernice Brown was an aviation pioneer and flight instructor, but she is unknown to almost all, even those knowledgeable about the history of flight. Born in Glasgow, Kentucky, in 1907, her parents gave her more opportunities than most other African Americans of the time. She grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana, and attended the Indiana State Teachers College, from which she received a B.A. in 1932 with majors in commerce and French. While taking classes, she also part-time taught at the segregated Roosevelt High School in Gary, Indiana, specializing in commercial studies.

In 1932, at the depth of the Great Depression, budget cuts forced the high school’s closing and Brown had to find other employment. Through 1939 she held a succession of federal and state government jobs as a secretary. For instance, she worked for a time as private secretary to Edna Paul Paige, director of the Chicago Relief Administration, and for Dr. Julius Jarvis of the University of Chicago. While working, Brown also enrolled in Northwestern University, and completed an M.A. in business administration there in 1938.

While in Chicago in 1933 Brown first showed interest in aviation and enrolled in the Aeronautical University where she earned a certificate as a master mechanic. She then met and received flight instruction from a local black aviator, Cornelius R. Coffey, at the Harlem Airport, near Oak Lawn, on Chicago’s south side. Although she was flying as early as 1935, Brown did not receive a limited commercial pilot license until 1937, certificate number 43814.

Immediately seeing the possibilities of aviation for the future, Brown and Coffey formed a partnership in 1935 and opened the Coffey School of Aeronautics. Brown became the director of aeronautics for this school, but it was a difficult time for the school and both worked other jobs to remain solvent. Brown recalled in 1941 that she worked 12-15 hours a day, seven days a week at several jobs: instructing at the school; running Brown’s Airport Inn, a lunch counter/snack bar at Chicago’s Harlem Airport; and teaching a class on aviation for the Chicago Board of Education. The hard work paid off, Brown and Coffey kept the school open. The team effort also drew Brown and Coffey together personally, and they married in July 1939. She chose not to change her name.

Willa Brown was also a tireless promoter of the positive role that black Americans could play in aviation. She began participating in airshows soon after receiving her pilot’s license to demonstrate the parity of the races. For instance, on October 26, 1938, she and Coffey participated with other black flyers in a Chicago airshow held at Harlem Airport. Before a crowd estimated at 30,000, black aviators took first and second place in the first airshow in the U.S. where the races competed together. Brown also helped establish and served as executive director of the National Airmen’s Association, a professional organization for black flyers. This society served the dual purpose of working for the promotion of aviation in the U.S., as did such groups as the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce and the National Aeronautic Association, and for acceptance of black Americans within the industry.

In 1939 a new chapter opened for Brown and the Coffey School of Aeronautics when it was given the task of training several black aviators under the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) that had been inaugurated by the federally operated Civil Aeronautics Authority. The CPTP had been established in 1938 as a war preparedness measure to help bolster the number of pilots in the U.S. which could be incorporated into the military in the event of hostilities.

Willa Brown in her C.A.P. uniform.

Willa Brown in her C.A.P. uniform.

In it the Civil Aeronautics Authority funded pilot training for selected individuals at universities and aeronautical schools throughout the nation. With its support, the Coffey School of Aeronautics quickly became a  center of black aviation training.  The CPTP allowed Brown to make the claim that the Coffey school was the first black owned and operated flying school in the U.S. to receive government approval.

Brown then went one better. She proposed the establishment of a Chicago Training Center for black flyers that would recruit the most promising students from around the country for flight instruction and then induction in the U.S. Army Air Forces. Brown, both a vocal and thoughtful proponent of aviation by blacks, won the support of the Chicago Board of Education, the WPA, and the Civil Aeronautics Authority. She also apparently got the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, and the proposal became a reality in the spring of 1940 when the first group of 30 trainees, drawn from applicants from all over the U.S., began their training. The first graduates of the school were taken into the military, a part of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, and became members of the 99th Pursuit Squadron that served in the European Theater of Operations.

Brown also joined the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), established in December 1941, and became its first black woman officer. The CAP was an arm of the Civil Aeronautics Authority, allowing non-military pilots to continue flying while engaged in civil defense activities. She helped organize Squadron 613-6, based at the Harlem Airport, and served as its adjutant.

During World War II Brown remained heavily involved in CAP and training efforts for the Army Air Forces. At the end of the war she got heavily involved in Republican Party politics in Chicago, even running for Congress in 1946. She also became a leader in her Chicago ward during the latter 1940s. Her marriage to Coffey ended during this same period and she later remarried to J.H. Chappell of Chicago, where she resided until her death on July 18, 1992.

In my estimation this is the type of story that would make a great movie, one that is both moving and compelling. Perhaps then, Willa Brown will be fully out of the shadows of aeronautical history.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Empire of Conspiracy”

download (3)Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America. By Timothy Melley. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Americans, certainly, and perhaps all the cultures of the world, love the idea of conspiracy as an explanation of how and why many events have happened. Timothy Melley makes clear in this heavily academic work that it plays to their innermost fears and hostilities that there is a well-organized, well-financed, and Machiavellian design being executed by some malevolent group, the dehumanized “them,” which seek to rob “us” of something we hold dear. As Melley makes clear it is the paranoid loss of agency that motivates much of this thinking. In all cases these tend to be exaggerated, expanded, and complexified with every retelling.

Melley is less concerned with the public explication of conspiracy theories than in the manifestations of this mindset in literature. He explores this in various genres and themes in contemporary American fiction. He emphasizes the place of the anonymous and seemingly all-powerful corporate entity, governmental or commercial or religious, in forming these perceptions. He has specific chapters relating to stalkers, abductions, and female paranoia; conspiracies of government and others in such areas as the Kennedy assassination of 1963; and the nature of addiction and viruses great and small.

In every case, Melley’s analysis is based on literature with frequent discussions of the work of Joseph Heller, Margaret Attwood, Diane Johnson, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon. He even offers an interesting analysis of the “Unabomber’s” manifesto as an exemplar of this literature.

This is very much a work of literary criticism. It is not overly theoretical in focus, although theory informs every aspect of it. At the same time, it is not for the casual reader. There is a world of difference between this analysis and that that offered in such books as Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (1999) by Mark Fenster, which takes a much more historical approach to the subject. Empire of Conspiracy is good for what it attempts to be, but be aware of what that is before taking it on.

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The Great NACA Fact-Finding Trip to Germany in 1936, and its Results

NACA LogoLast week I presented a discussion of the political process whereby two additional NACA laboratories were created. Here is the pre-history of that set of decisions.

In the first part of 1936 John J. Ide, the NACA’s European representative since 1921, fired off an alarming report on the state of aeronautical science on that continent. Ide, the sometime technology expert, sometime intelligence analyst, and sometime Charles A. Lindbergh,expatriate, reported on greatly increased aeronautical research activities in Great Britain, France, Italy, and especially Germany. He observed that new and quite modern wind tunnels were being erected to aid in the development of higher performing aircraft and suggested that the NACA review its own instruments and facilities to determine if they met contemporary demands.

Charles A. Lindbergh, an NACA executive committee member living in seclusion in England, confirmed Ide’s report in a May 1936 letter to Committee chairman Dr. Joseph S. Ames. In 1936 Lewis inserted a deft warning to the government in the NACA’s annual report, commenting on the arms race in Europe that followed Hitler’s coming to power in Germany and suggesting that “increased recognition abroad of the value and of the vital necessity of aeronautical research has led to recent tremendous expansion in research programs and to multiplication of research facilities by other progressive nations. Thus has the foundation been laid for a serious challenge to America’s present leadership in the technical development of aircraft.”

Joseph S. Ames at his NACA office.

Joseph S. Ames at his NACA office.

In part because of these developments and in part because of an invitation from the Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei, in September-October 1936 George W. Lewis traveled to Europe via the Zeppelin Hindenburg to learn more about aeronautical development. While there he toured with Dr. Adolph Baeumker, the German government’s R&D head, several aeronautical facilities in Nazi Germany and was both impressed and disquieted by their activities.

Lewis learned that Luftwaffe chief and Hitler stalwart Hermann Goering was “intensely interested in research and development.” With Goering’s support Baeumker greatly expanded aeronautical R&D, decentralizing it at three major stations: one for research on new aircraft, one for fundamental research without application to specific aircraft designs, and one for the development of new propulsion systems. It was a powerful combination, especially when Reichmarks were flowing to fund accelerated experimentation. Lewis remarked:

It is apparent in Germany, especially in aviation, that everyone is working under high pressure.  The greatest effort is being made to provide an adequate air fleet.  Every manufacturer is turning out as many airplanes as possible, and the research and development organizations are working on problems that have an immediate bearing on this production program.

While “the equipment at [NACA’s] Langley Field is equal to or better than the equipment in the German research laboratories,” Lewis concluded, “the personnel of the German research laboratories is [sic] larger in number, and the engineers have had an opportunity of having special training, which has not been afforded to many of our own engineers.” To maintain American primacy in aviation, Lewis advised, the nation should immediately start the N.A.C.A.’s expansion.

An advertisement for the Hindenburg in 1936.

An advertisement for the Hindenburg in 1936.

These epistles of warning brought moderate action by the NACA. It started in 1936 with the construction of another wind tunnel at Langley and the lengthening of a tank used for seaplane research. It obtained additional funding through a special “Deficiency Appropriation Act” to fund the construction of new facilities. It also, and these were both important and peculiarly bureaucratic decisions, created two committees to review the situation. The first was a Special Committee of Aeronautical Research Facilities with Rear Admiral Ernest J. King as chair. They were charged with surveying the research needs of the country. This group quickly responded with a detailed critique of the NACA’s capabilities and recommended rapid expansion. This found tangible expression in a greatly increased budget request for 1938, a request adopted in Congress because of the fear of war in Europe.

The NACA also established a “Special Committee on the Relation of NACA to National Defense in Time of War.” Chaired by the Chief of the Army Air Corps, Major General Oscar Westover, this special committee began operation on December 22, 1936. More than eighteen months passed before it took any action, submitting a report on 19 August 1938 that declared the NACA an essential agency in time of war to support the aviation development needs of the Army and Navy. It also said that the agency’s activities should be expanded and become an adjunct of the Aeronautical Board, while its workforce should remain largely civilian and deferrals from a draft be granted on a case by case basis.

“Such a position,” this report stated, “would [essentially] make the N.A.C.A. part of the Armed Forces.” While the agency would remain independent in a legal sense, this committee allowed that it would be “in a more subordinate position that it now enjoys.”  Most important, the Westover Committee found that aeronautical R&D was being hampered by “the congested bottleneck of Langley Field” and that an additional laboratory was required to meet increasing expansion in response to the perceived foreign threat and to limit the agency’s vulnerability to attack. No doubt partly in response to the renewed emphasis in defense issues acknowledged in the April 1939 Military Appropriations Bill, this report was approved by the President as a mobilization plan for the NACA on July 29, 1939, and set the stage for the actions of the organization throughout the early 1940s.

Meantime, a real fear arose about the possibility that the United States was losing its technical edge or at least parity in military aviation because the major European powers were conducting aeronautical R&D on a wartime footing. Lindbergh again expressed his distress at advances in European aeronautics to the NACA’s Joseph S. Ames in November 1938:

Germany’s aviation progress is as rapid as ever. Her [sic] production facilities are tremendous and new factories are still being built. Germany is ever today as supreme in the air as England is at sea, and I see no sign of any other nation in Europe catching up to her. I believe we should accept the fact that Germany will continue to be the leading country in Europe in aviation. She will be the leading country in the world if we do not increase our own rate of development.  Even now Germany is far ahead of us in military aviation. When she turns her present resources to the field of commercial aviation, we will have a competition such as we have never experienced in the past….the present quality of German military planes indicates what we may look forward to in the future, and necessitates our devoting much more effort to our own aviation development if we are to keep pace. To give some idea of the development which is going on there, I think I need only mention the fact that the German engineers are now thinking of speeds in the vicinity of 800 kilometres per hour at critical altitude for service airplanes. Their latest bombers are now flying at more than 500 kilometres per hour. It is really necessary to visit Germany and to see the development at first hand in order to fully realize its magnitude.

Lindbergh continued to harp on these advances in German aeronautics and to urge the NACA to redouble efforts to recapture the lead in aeronautical research and development, especially in relationship to its need to emphasize aircraft propulsion.

George Lewis explains the Plan for the new engine research laboratory to top NACA staff.

George Lewis explains the Plan for the new engine research laboratory to top NACA staff.

This set the stage for the creation of two additional NACA facilities formed in 1940 and 1941, these became the Ames Research Center near San Francisco, California, and the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

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Something Fun for a Friday: Bing Crosby and David Bowie Sing a Christmas Duet

I first watched Bing Crosby and David Bowie sing this combination of “Little Drummer Boy” and “Peace on Earth” on a Christmas special in the late 1970s. I was in graduate school at the time and balancing a job, school, and a young family did not leave me a lot of time. My wife and two daughters sat down and watched this special, something my hectic life rarely allowed. I don’t remember much about the rest of the Christmas special, but this song has stayed with me. It is a beautiful rendition that helped rescue that Christmas for me, as well as several since that time. I think you will like this duet, and perhaps be moved by it, especially its call for peace on Earth, which now more than ever seems to be lacking. Enjoy!

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Why Mars”

lambrightWhy Mars: NASA and the Politics of Space Exploration. By W. Henry Lambright. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. Preface, introduction, conclusion, notes, index. Hardcover. Pp. ix – 320. USD $45.46. ISBN: 978-1-4214-1279-5.

W. Henry Lambright’s Why Mars: NASA and the Politics of Space Exploration is an important new work that discusses the politics of the human exploration of Mars. For all of those who lament the unwillingness of political leaders to empower NASA to undertake a human mission to Mars, and especially those who view it as “the next logical step” Lambright’s study offers a dose of reality to the space policy issues at play. In the interest of full disclosure, I have known and respected the author of Why Mars for nearly 25 years and read this work in manuscript for the press, as well as contributed a blurb to its cover. Regardless, this study is exceptionally fine; it is very well researched, written, and analyzed.

This book is excellent for three interrelated reasons. First, and foremost, this is an excellent policy/political history of the Mars exploration program conducted by NASA. It is especially strong in the discussion of the highly successful Mars “follow the water” strategy that has dominated the NASA effort for nearly twenty years. This made it possible for NASA to garner public and political support for its integrated Mars initiative. No one has come close to explaining this development before Lambright and this alone makes this study a major contribution to the scholarly literature. Second, Lambright names names and offers assessments, some of them harsh, in his discussion of Mars exploration policy. Accordingly, this book elucidates the core issues in science policy and the convergences and divergences in relation to one of the biggest of all big science efforts. Third, Why Mars helps to illuminate several key policy issues, most important the lack of compelling policy reasons to undertake the expenditure of the enormous sums of money necessary to make a Mars mission real.

The subject of this work is, of course, of considerable interest. Mars has long held a special fascination for humans who pondered the planets of the solar ­system—partly because of the possibility that life might either presently exist or at some time in the past have existed ­there. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli published a work in 1877 that laid the foundation for this belief. His map of Mars showed a system of what he called canali, in Italian this meant “channel” and carried no connotation of being an artificial feature. Even so, the word was commonly translated into English as “canal” and began the speculation that Mars held life that were changing the planet’s features for their own purposes. American astronomer Percival Lowell became interested in Mars during the latter part of the nineteenth century, and built what became the Lowell Observatory near Flagstaff, Arizona, to study it. His research advanced the argument that Mars had once been a watery planet and that the topographical features known as canals had been built by intelligent beings. Lowell’s observations gave rise to the Martian myth, one of the most powerful ideas motivating in solar system exploration. People genuinely expected explorers to find life on Mars.

The idea of life on Mars remained in the popular imagination for a long time, and only with the scientific data returned from probes to the planet since the beginning of the space age did this begin to change. In June 1963 the Soviets reached Mars first, but with little scientific return. The United States did not reach Mars until July 1965, when Mariner 4 flew within 6,118 miles of the planet and took 21 ­close-­up pictures. These photographs dashed the hopes of many that life might be present on Mars, for the first ­close-up images showed a cratered, ­lunar-­like surface. They depicted a planet without structures and canals, nothing that even remotely resembled a pattern that intelligent life might produce. Mariner 6 and Mariner 7, launched in February and March 1969, each passed Mars in August 1969, studying its atmosphere and surface to lay the groundwork for an eventual landing on the planet. Their pictures verified the ­moon-­like appearance of Mars and gave no hint that Mars had ever been able to support life.

This study’s greatest strength is its illumination of several key policy issues present in NASA, space exploration, and larger science arena. Let me offer four policy concerns dealt with here: (1) Why Mars; what is it about the Red Planet that entices so many people to seek more information about it? (2) How and why do decisions about missions, technologies, and objectives get made in the modern post-industrial era? (3) What is NASA’s role—as well as the role of its factions—in the policy process? (4) How does the much-debated concept of “big science” relate to this undertaking?

At sum, this is a book about scientific institutions, scientific entrepreneurs, and politicos both elected and unelected  pursuing efforts to free the public purse of treasure to undertake missions to Mars. The story is firmly rooted in Washington, with other loci of policy occasionally emerging and requiring discussion. The central actors are NASA administrators of all levels, the occasional public intellectual, a few political actors, and not many others.

There are three things that this book is not really about although one could make the case that these are appropriate topics for future work:

  1. This is not a history of technology. There is virtually no discussion of the unique technologies developed to accomplish the Mars exploration program. While there is mention of rovers, landing methods, etc., this is not a history of technology innovation in the context of NASA’s Mars program. That is a project well worth undertaking, and I hope someone does so at some point, but that is not the theme of this manuscript.
  2. This is not a history of science. One will be hard pressed to learn much of anything about the physical properties of Mars, its atmosphere, climate, geology, etc., in these pages. Scientific studies of the planet do exist, although they are all written by scientists and have precious little insight into the historical evolution of this scientific inquiry. This would be a good study for someone to undertake, but it is not Lambright’s focus.
  3. This is not a sophisticated cultural history. The imagination of humans in relation to Mars, even up to the present, is not a central aspect of this manuscript. A book called “Mars and the American Imagination” would be well worth writing. It still awaits its historian.

Each of these three approaches would be excellent historical subjects to pursue. Perhaps other historians will take them on.

The persistence of belief that life had once been on Mars has motivated a major effort to land, rove, and learn about Mars. Lambright does a good job of telling the story of the desire and the divergences from Mars exploration in this policy history of exploration of the red planet.

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The NACA and New Research Laboratories in World War II

NACA LogoAs the United States moved into the World War II era its military forces called upon the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as never before to provide the aeronautical technology necessary to win the war. It was not easy for the NACA to rise to this challenge. It had never been a traditional government agency.  It was a committee and suffered from all the problems and benefited from all of the positive attributes of such an organization.  Most significantly, it had no firm line of authority, and this meant that it was something of a stepchild in the world of U.S. government organizations.

The NACA, established in 1915,  also possessed no really unique place in the aeronautical world; it had a function to be sure, but just what form that function might take and for whom the function was performed were open questions. The NACA had fought a series of bureaucratic skirmishes over these issues almost from its inception, but they arose again in the latter 1930s as the nation prepared for possible war. The Committee’s mission began to be an issue in the fall of 1938 when Robert A. Millikin, head the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, California Institute of Technology (GALCIT), in Pasadena, California, asked the federal government for help in expanding his facility’s research capability to keep pace with military research requirements.

This request aroused a longstanding NACA bugaboo. The Committee had fought long and hard for its role as a research institution, and had made its reputation on the basis of “fundamental research” not specifically oriented toward an aircraft design. While Millikin conceded the “fundamental research” mission to the NACA, he opened the larger question of just what research the government should fund and by implication, the Committee’s role in that research. He also stirred up several members of Congress and leaders of several government agencies to consider these issues anew. Major General Henry H. Arnold, who took over following Oscar Westover’s death in September 1939 as Chief of the Army Air Corps, advocated dividing aeronautical research into three segments, with the NACA having primacy in only one part, basic research on fundamentals of flight.

HHap Arnold

Hap Arnold

Applied research would be conducted by military laboratories and the manufacturers for the “application of new aerodynamic theories, principles, and discoveries to the particular problems of military aircraft.” “Production research,” Arnold thought, should be “conducted in the facilities available at Universities or other private or civilian institutions in the vicinity of the manufacturer concerned.” While Arnold believed that the NACA could coordinate some of this research, he wanted to minimize its role.

The GALCIT proposal, and the consideration that it engendered in Washington, forced the NACA into a defensive posture. The Committee had always tried to define its work in such a way that it had a broad primary mission duplicated by no other agency, public or private. Millikin and Arnold and some congressmen struck at an Achilles heel in the organization, as well as a tender nerve, in suggesting that the NACA had a role in aeronautical research only in certain specific “basic” aspects.

All of this discussion came together in a unique way. The NACA’s true strength since the 1920s had been its basic research in aerodynamics, made possible by several wind tunnels at its Langley research facility. It had appropriately focused its research in areas that prompted the best use of its unique resources, particularly the wind tunnels, and it had hired or developed leading aerodynamists to work for the Committee. To give GALCIT a government-sponsored wind tunnel was to arm a potential rival with a means of competing directly with the NACA. It also would foster the primacy of GALCIT as the chief supplier of research services to the West Coast aircraft industry. The NACA’s leadership was certainly not interested in doing that, but it could not say so directly and searched for another reason to kill the proposal.

Even so, many suspected that the sound heard from the NACA about the GALCIT proposal was more like a rice bowl breaking than an honest appraisal. Congressman Carl Hinshaw of Los Angeles remarked that

There seems to be a certain feeling on the part of the NACA, which I can hardly describe, but the best way to describe it is that they would like to retain a concentration of research facilities entirely within the NACA.  They do not seem inclined to favor allowing these facilities to be spread out among the several qualified educational institutions.  I do not just know whether it is the old question of professional jealousy or the old question of expanding bureaucracy or some other queer incomprehensible angle.

Jerome C. Hunsaker, the MIT professor who was an NACA member and became its chairman in 1941, offered the conclusion that the aircraft industry indigenous to southern California wanted a wind tunnel but was not willing to build one itself.  He remarked in private: “If S. California industry wants more wind tunnel facilities, let them [sic] provide them themselves.”

These political machinations aside, the means for the NACA to defeat the GALCIT proposal without looking like an organization of bureaucratic infighters was readily at hand, and it did not take agency leaders long to employ it.  On 19 August 1938 the NACA had empowered another committee to study the feasibility of developing a second research center. This Special Committee on Future Research Facilities, chaired by Rear Admiral Arthur B. Cook, then chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, came forward with a recommendation on 30 December 1938 to construct a new NACA facility adjacent to the Moffett Field naval air station at Sunnyvale, California. Ensconced near the West Coast aircraft industry, the new research site would be able to provide the kind of assistance to industry demanded in a potential wartime environment. It was also a preemptive strike against GALCIT. This would eventually become the Ames Research Center.

Ames Aeronautical Laboratory under construction in California in 1940.

Ames Aeronautical Laboratory under construction in California in 1940.

Why should the War Department fund the GALCIT proposal when the NACA had a facility that could provide the same research capability? John Victory wrote to a friend about this move, leaving out a discussion of the bureaucratic battle that had in part prompted the decision. “So whatever pride we may take in our present research effort,” he wrote,

we must realize that Germany has laid well a foundation for enduring supremacy in technical development.  Our plan for a second major research station at Sunnyvale was arrived at after months of sober reflection on the responsibilities facing us.  We must look not only at the present, but at the situation that will exist three years from now, ten years from now.  The present German advantage will have cumulative results with the passing of time unless America takes adequate measures to strengthen the research foundations for its air development.

Although it took some swift action on the part of the NACA to win Congressional approval, because of the crisis environment in Washington during the summer of 1939 it received permission to build the Sunnyvale laboratory.  It did so immediately and the new NACA facility opened the following year.

At the same time that the NACA was fighting a rearguard action against GALCIT and potential encroachments into its R&D prerogatives, Charles Lindbergh was asked to head another committee on research facilities, and he took the opportunity to hammer on a particular area of concern that he had registered many times before, propulsion research. In a report sent to the NACA on 19 October 1939, Lindbergh “urgently recommend[ed] that an engine research laboratory be constructed at the earliest possible date, in a location easily accessible to the aircraft-engine industry.” Quickly agreed to by the Committee, this proposal prompted a site selection committee to begin meeting under the leadership of Vannevar Bush.

Early aerial photograph of Lewis Aeronautical Laboratory, now Glenn Research Center.

Early aerial photograph of Lewis Aeronautical Laboratory, now Glenn Research Center.

In late 1940 it selected Cleveland, near the center of the northeastern-based engine industry, as the place for the new laboratory. The NACA had little trouble obtaining the funding for the new facility, although considerable regional politics and industrial priorities entered into the episode, and in 1941 construction began. This became what is now the Glenn Research Center.

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Something Fun for a Friday: 2014 USAF Flash Mob at NASM’s Udvar-Hazy Center

On December 2, 2014, at the National Air and Space Museum’s Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport the USAF Band showed up to stage another flash mob. It’s a great holiday treat. Enjoy!

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight”

9781743531594Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight. By Jay Barbree. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2014. Introduction by John Glenn. Illustrations. 517 pages. ISBN: 978-1250040718. $19.68 USD. Hardcover with dustjacket.

Whatever else Jay Barbree’s Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight might be, it is not a biography of Neil Armstrong (1930-2012). There is only small insight into his beliefs, desires, loves, or hates. There is little discussion of his family and his goals. There is even less about his early years, only a cursory exploration of his Korean War experience, and nothing to speak of about his lengthy and significant activities since ending his career as a NASA astronaut in the early 1970s.

What is present is largely generic information about early NASA, especially an almost mission-by-mission summary of the Apollo program with an often tenuous relationship to Neil Armstrong. To his credit, Barbree offers a number of observations about the nature of human spaceflight throughout the last half century and a few sometimes humorous and insightful stories. Unfortunately, these mostly have little to do with Neil Armstrong even as they offer useful perceptions.

There are many areas that Barbree might have explored in some detail. For example, Armstrong sought neither fame nor riches, and when he might have done anything he wished after his completion of the Apollo 11 Moon landing mission he chose to teach aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. What was it about Neil Armstrong that prompted him to become an engineering professor teaching undergraduates? Explaining such decisions is part of the biographer’s responsibility.

I would also have very much appreciated an explication of the recent space policy issues that Armstrong became involved in. As the Space Shuttle was on track for retirement Barbree notes that in 2010 Gene Cernan (Apollo 17), Jim Lovell (Apollos 8 and 13), and Armstrong famously sent U.S. President Barack Obama a letter warning that failure to pursue an aggressive government spaceflight program, as they wrote, “destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature.”

This episode did not happen in a vacuum, but unfortunately it is left unexplained in Neil Armstrong: A Life in Flight. That debate still rages, and Barbree might have made a contribution by exploring Armstrong’s role in depth. It originated in no small measure over whether or not to maintain a traditional approach to human spaceflight with NASA owning the vehicles and operating them through contractors. That was the method whereby America went to the Moon; it has proven successful over more than fifty years. That was seemingly the position of Neil Armstrong. Then there are those from the “new space” world that emphasize allowing private sector firms to seize the initiative and pursue entrepreneurial approaches to human spaceflight. Advocates of the more traditional approach believe that the other side will sacrifice safety; advocates of the entrepreneurial approach criticize the forces of tradition by pointing out their large, over-budget space efforts.

It is clear from this work that Barbree did not know Neil Armstrong very well despite having talked with him repeatedly; perhaps no one ever really knew him. Always gracious, Armstrong neither sought the spotlight nor the adulation of millions. He was nonplussed by all of the attention he received about Apollo 11 when he knew that he was simply one among thousands who made it possible. Regardless, he carried the weight of making that history on his back for more than forty years. Barbree might have explored these and other questions of Armstrong’s multifaceted persona. Nor does Barbree figure out the life of quiet honor and dignity Armstrong modeled. Some have characterized him as a recluse who stayed out of the spotlight, but when one tallies Armstrong’s activities since Apollo 11 there is much more there than anyone suspected. While some at NASA would have preferred that he had more publicly supported its initiatives, Armstrong’s thoughtful and reflective perspective carried weight because of the manner in which he conveyed it. Too bad, Barbree did not explore that aspect of Armstrong’s life.

This book can only be viewed as a disappointment given the possibilities it held. Jay Barbree has the longest tenure of any journalist covering the space program; his knowledge is both broad and deep. A more personal account by Barbree would have been welcomed by all. Instead, this book inaccurately announces itself as the “definitive” biography of Armstrong and some of the early advertising literature even claimed that it was an authorized biography.

Armstrong was a uniquely complex individual, one who has thus far been best captured in what was truly an authorized biography, James R. Hansen’s First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong (Simon and Schuster, 2005). Armstrong cooperated with every aspect of that book, giving his time to Hansen, reviewing the chapters and offering comments, but never interfering with Hansen’s conclusions. There will be many other fine biographies yet written, no doubt, but because of Armstrong’s complexity none will ever be definitive. He was so much more than an astronaut, and because of this none will communicate fully the humanity, passions, triumphs, and significance of Neil Armstrong.

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A Short History of Reentry and Recovery from Space in Less than 1,000 Words

Apollo spacecraft returning to Earth.

Apollo spacecraft returning to Earth.

The atmosphere surrounding the Earth and supporting life here makes spaceflight harder than it would be if it did not exist. It is said, only half-jokingly, that getting to orbit is like getting “halfway to anywhere” because of the energy necessary to reach it. Generally overlooked, however, is just how difficult it also is to come home from orbit. All of the energy expended to get to orbit has to be dissipated on the way back to Earth, in the form of extreme heating. In addition to the aerodynamic concerns with high-speed flight, there are serious thermodynamic issues with a 17,500 mph plunge through the atmosphere.

The technology needed to survive reentry matured rather quickly in the 1950s. The warheads developed during the Cold War for ballistic missiles led directly to the capsules that first allowed humans to venture into space. The Mercury capsule, accordingly, required a design that allowed a longer, lower-g reentry drove the development of several new technologies. Despite this, the technologies for ballistic reentry paved the way for human flight into space and reentry therefrom.

While most proposals for satellites between 1946 and 1957 avoided the difficult problem of reentry, early it became obvious that the heating of reentry had to be understood and mitigated for human spaceflight to proceed. Three approaches dominated thinking.

  1. A heat sink concept that sought to move quickly from space through the upper atmosphere. Superheating proved a serious problem, however, and materials to protect the spacecraft a major concern.
  2. Circulating a fluid through the spacecraft’s skin to soak up the heat of reentry; championed by Wernher von Braun to support a grandiose vision of astronauts returning from wheeled space stations aboard huge spaceplanes.
  3. A blunt-body concept, a major breakthrough, which shaped the course of spaceflight research and provided the basis for all successful reentry vehicles.
These four shadowgraph images represent early re-entry vehicle concepts. A shadowgraph is a process that makes visible the disturbances that occur in a fluid flow at high velocity, in which light passing through a flowing fluid is refracted by the density gradients in the fluid resulting in bright and dark areas on a screen placed behind the fluid.H. Julian Allen pioneered and developed the Blunt Body Theory which made possible the heat shield designs that were embodied in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space capsules, enabling astronauts to survive the firey re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. A blunt body produces a shockwave in front of the vehicle--visible in the photo--that actually shields the vehicle from excessive heating. As a result, blunt body vehicles can stay cooler than pointy, low drag vehicles.

These four images represent early re-entry vehicle concepts. H. Julian Allen pioneered and developed the Blunt Body Theory which made possible the heat shield designs that were embodied in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules, enabling astronauts to survive reentry. A blunt body produces a shockwave in front of the vehicle–visible in the photo–that actually shields the vehicle from excessive heating. As a result, blunt body vehicles can stay cooler than pointy vehicles.

All human spaceflight projects actually flown by the United States prior to the Space Shuttle employed a blunt-body reentry design with an ablative shield to dissipate the heat generated by atmospheric friction. This approach has also been used in reconnaissance, warhead, and scientific reentry successfully from the 1950s to the present. Additionally, the question of what materials to use to protect the spacecraft during blunt-body reentry led to research on metallic, ceramic, and ablative heat shields. All researchers soon agreed that ablative technology offered the greatest chance of success.


A space shuttle model undergoes a wind tunnel test in 1975. This test is simulating the ionized gasses that surround a shuttle as it reenters the atmosphere.

All of the American efforts until the Space Shuttle, and the Soviet and Chinese human capsules, used from one to three parachutes for return to Earth. For the Americans, the capsules landed in the ocean and were recovered by ship. Both the Soviet/Russian and Chinese spacecraft have always been recovered on land, which presented the crew with a harder landing than would be the case in the sea but obviated the need for naval deployments to recover the capsule and crew. For Project Gemini NASA toyed with the possibility of using a paraglider being developed at Langley Research Center for “dry” landings instead of a “splashdown” in water and recovery by the Navy. The engineers never did get the paraglider to work properly and eventually dropped it from the program in favor of a parachute system like the one used for Mercury.

The U.S. also used parachutes to return film canisters from the nation’s first reconnaissance satellite, CORONA, flown between 1960 and 1972. This program employed satellites with cameras and film launched into near-polar orbits to provide frequent coverage of the USSR. After the film was exposed, it was wound onto reels in a special reentry capsule that separated from the spacecraft at about 160 km altitude and then at 20,000 m jettisoned its heat shield and deployed a parachute. Air Force planes flying over the Pacific then snagged the parachute and capsule, returning the film for processing and analysis.

By the latter 1960s NASA officials had made the decision to abandon capsules with blunt-body ablative recovery systems that relied on parachutes. Instead Space Shuttle, which still had a blunt-body configuration, used a new ceramic tile and Reinforced Carbon-Carbon for its thermal protection. Parachutes were also jettisoned in favor of a delta-wing aerodynamic concept that allowed runway landings. Despite many challenges, and the loss of one vehicle and crew due to a failure with the thermal protection system in 2003, this approach worked since first flown in 1981 through the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. Overall, NASA flew 135 Space Shuttle missions over the course of its career.

The Soviet Union also built a space shuttle, the Buran, which flew only one mission without a crew in 1988. Like its American counterpart, Buran landed with delta wings on a runway. With the demise of the Soviet Union, however, the Soviet Ministry of Defense realized that this system was expensive and without a firm rationale. In 1993 NPO Energia’s head, Yuri Semenov, publicly announced the end of the project.

Soyuz return process.

Soyuz return process.

As the twenty-first century has progressed, the preferred method for returning to Earth remains ablative heat shields for the dissipation of excess heat and speed and parachutes for soft landing. Generally, this has worked effectively but the Soviet Union did lose one mission, Vladimir Komarov’s Soyuz 1  on April 24, 1967, when his reentry system failed. The Russians likewise used the ablative heat shield and parachute approach for recovery of three lunar sample return missions, Luna 16 which successfully returned 101 grams of lunar soil in 1970, Luna 20 which returned 30 grams in 1974, and Luna 24 which returned 170.1 grams in 1976.

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Announcing Space Policy and History Forum #14: Commercial Spaceflight After the Antares and SpaceShipTwo Failures


 Commercial Spaceflight After the Antares and SpaceShipTwo Failures

Space Policy and History Forum #1406

Monday, December 8, 2014

by Jeff Foust, Space News

The commercial space industry suffered two major accidents in less than a week in late October: the failure of an Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket seconds after liftoff October 28 from Wallops Island, Virginia, and the crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo on a test flight in Mojave, California, on October 31. in the immediate aftermath of the accidents, there was a temptation to link the two, despite the very different companies and technologies involved in each incident. This talk will examine the two accidents and their implications for the companies involved as well as the broader commercial space industry and the government’s increasing reliance on it.


Jeff Foust is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews, joining the publication in September 2014. He covers civil and commercial space topics for the publication. He has more than a decade of experience writing about space policy, commercial space, and related topics. In 2001, he established Spacetoday.net, a website that aggregated links to and provided summaries of space news. In 2003, he started The Space Review, a weekly publication of long form articles and commentary on a wide range of space topics. Both sites continue to operate to this day.

Prior to joining SpaceNews, he worked as a senior analyst for the Futron Corporation, an aerospace consulting company, for more than a decade. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1999 and a B.S. with honors in geophysics and planetary science from the California Institute of Technology in 1993.

Date and Time

December 8, 2014 (Monday), 4:00-5:00 P.M.

Location, Parking, and Access

The lecture will be held at the National Air and Space Museum, 600 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, D.C., 4:00-5:00 p.m, on December 8. Space is limited to 50 attendees, so please RSVP to Roger Launius (launiusr@si.edu) to get your name on the list.  This will be for access to the 3rd floor of the Museum, where we will be meeting in the Director’s Conference Room. You may check in and obtain a badge for access to the building at the guard desk just to the right as you enter the Independence Ave. doors. If you have any questions regarding access, please let me know. Parking is not available in NASM, and is limited elsewhere; I recommend using the Metro system for travel to the National Air and Space Museum—the Smithsonian and L’Enfant Plaza stops are close by.

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