David H. DeVorkin and I have just published a collected work on the history of the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble’s Legacy: Reflections by Those Who Dreamed It, Built It, and Observed the Universe with It appeared in August 2014 (ISBN 978-1-935623-32-8) as part of the Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press and is available for free download here. Print versions may also be purchased.
Announcing the Publication of “Hubble’s Legacy: Reflections by Those Who Dreamed It, Built It, and Observed the Universe with It”
The dominant interpretation of Charles Comiskey was established for most in the United States by Eliot Asinof in his 1963 book 8 Men Out, made into a superb movie of the same name by John Sayles in 1988. It emphasized Comiskey’s penny-pinching, capricious, and obnoxious ownership of the Chicago White Sox American League franchise as THE reason for the players on his team throwing the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. This book takes on that interpretation and presents a convincing alternative to that dominant interpretation.
Tim Hornbaker offers a fine biography of Charles Comiskey from his time as a star first baseman with the St. Louis Browns in the 1880s to the establishment and building of a powerful American League team, the Chicago White Sox. The Browns ran away with the pennant in 1885 and won the American Association championship each year between 1885 and 1888 under Comiskey’s leadership. When he first came to St. Louis from the Dubuque Rabbits minor league team, Comiskey received a measly $90 a month. Comiskey worked wonders with the team then demanded, and received, top pay of $5,000 per year. During that four-year period when the St. Louis Browns were the rulers of the American Association, they played post-season series with the winners of the National League pennant, although the term “World Series” had yet to be dreamed up. The Browns tied Chicago’s White Stockings (3-3-1) in the 1885 World Series and defeating them four games to two the next year for the American Association’s only Series triumph over their NL rivals.
In his post-playing years Comiskey helped to found the American League, and built the White Sox into one of its powerhouses. His teams won pennants in 1901, 1906, 1917, and 1919, and the World Series in 1906 and 1917. Of course, the White Sox would have won the 1919 World Series except for a betting scandal in which eight players were implicated for throwing the series. The so-called “Black Sox” have forever been tied to Comiskey and his reputation has suffered through it.
As presented in this very convincing book, Comiskey has received a bad rap. He was presumably an imperious, penny-pinching, aristocrat. He was anything but. He was a self-made man; he had a commitment to presenting quality baseball to the masses for a reasonable price. He paid his players reasonable money, the White Sox had one of the highest team salaries of 1919. There were 15 players in the American League with salaries of $6,000 or more; five of them were members of the White Sox.
One of the most onerous criticisms of Comiskey in the Black Sox scandal was that he underpaid Eddie Cicotte, who went 29-7 in 1919 and then denied him a promised $10,000 bonus if he won 30 games. To make matters worse, the legend is that Comiskey ordered Cicotte benched for the last part of the season so he had to no opportunity to win that 30th game. It was because of this that Cicotte agreed to throw the series; in return he received $10,000 from gamblers.
The problem with this story is that it is untrue. Cicotte had a $5,000 base salary and earned a $3,000 bonus in 1919. In 1918 and 1919, the years when Cicotte was a leading pitcher in the league, he earned $15,000 in salary and bonuses. Only Washington Senator Walter Johnson, clearly the best pitcher in the league, earned more at $19,000. There is no evidence that Cicotte was promised $10,000, and there is certainly no reason to believe he was benched at the end of the season.
So if Comiskey was not the skinflint rumored, what led the White Sox to throw the series? The answer, as Hornbaker makes clear, is both more complex and less easily understood. Each of the players had personal reasons for seeking the main chance with the gamblers. Chick Gandil wanted to go back to California and needed a stake; Cicotte had a garage and a new farm in Michigan and needed to resolve cash flow problems. Other players had differing reasons. None of those banned blamed Comiskey at the time for throwing of the series.
When reading this book I was reminded of my own work on Charlie Finley, owner of the Kansas City/Oakland As in the 1960s and 1970s, who was well known as a penny-pinching, capricious, and obnoxious owner whose players hated him. Some players hated him; some didn’t. Finley was not a penurious as some believed. He was also committed to making baseball available to larger numbers, and brought innovation to the game. One big difference between Comiskey and Finley: Comiskey is in the Baseball Hall of Fame but Finley is not. I believe Finley belongs there just as much as Comiskey.
For the twentieth century no set of technological innovations are more intriguing than those associated with aviation. Perhaps no technological development in this century has more fundamentally transformed human life than the airplane, coupled with its ground support apparatus and infrastructure. Why did aeronautical technology take the shape it did; which individuals and organizations were involved in driving it; what factors influenced particular choices of scientific objectives and technologies to be used; and what were the political, economic, managerial, international, and cultural contexts in which the events of the aeronautical age have unfolded?
More importantly, how has innovation affected this technology? If there is a folklore in the public mind about the history of aeronautical engineering, it is the story of genius and its role in innovation. Americans love the idea of the lone inventor, especially if that inventor strives against odds to develop some revolutionary piece of technology in a basement or garage. There have been enough instances of this in U.S. history to feed this folklore and allow it to persist. The “Renaissance man” with broad background who can build a technological system from the ground up permeates this ideal.
Individualism and versatility has characterized this concept of engineering. Its quintessential expression was Leonardo da Vinci, the leading figure in the technology of his time. It has also been more recently expressed in the work of Thomas A. Edison, whose many accomplishments in technology have been recognized as seminal to modern life. These same virtuoso expressions of engineering mastery have also been recognized in the work of U.S. aeronautics and rocket pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright and Robert H. Goddard, who spent most of their careers as lone researchers. The Wrights secretively developed their flying machine in their native Dayton, Ohio, and testing it on the dunes at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Goddard designed and tested ever more sophisticated rockets on a piece of isolated land near Roswell, New Mexico. Neither sought outside assistance beyond funding nor welcomed colleagues. Their’s were solitary accomplishments.
At the same time, the “Renaissance man” has never been very common in the history of science and technology, and certainly not in the rise of aeronautics. The kind of lone wolves that make up the folklore, reinforced by the reality of a few bona fide geniuses, are rare indeed. In twentieth century aeronautical engineering the increasing depth of information in the individual disciplines ensure that no one person can now master the multifarious skills necessary in the research, design, development, and building of a piece of aerospace
In the latter nineteenth century leading American engineering educators made a conscious decision to emphasize theoretical engineering issues. Then they had to reintegrate the discipline so that new engineering accomplishments could be realized. The discussion that follows describes this evolutionary process. This process has affected major aspects of public policy ever since, changing fundamentally how individuals perceive “big government” and its management of issues ranging from medicine to nuclear power.
There were two central reasons for this change. The first is relatively easy to comprehend, the development of something as complex as an aircraft capable of operating in three dimensions is too large for any one individual to oversee, regardless of how much mastery or however large a body of knowledge might exist in one expert’s mind. The breadth and depth of engineering and scientific information is simply too large for any one person to comprehend fully. It must be parceled out and managed through a team approach.
The second reason is more complex, and ultimately more interesting. Before the second world war, by all accounts, engineering education in the United States was overwhelmingly oriented toward training young engineers in a very practical “shop culture.” The orientation of instructors in engineering was not directed toward research and theory, but toward practical application. Where research was conducted, it usually emerged naturally from consulting projects, and focused on the narrow questions informing the consulting work.
This began to change in the first part of the twentieth century as an influx of European engineers came to the United States and brought their educational ethos to the nation’s academies. In the aerospace engineering community this included such men as Theodore von Kármán, the brilliant Hungarian aerodynamicist and one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), who came to the California Institute of Technology in the 1930s. Von Kármán was not only a hard-edged aeronautical engineer, but also a leading theorist who contributed important concepts to aerodynamics. At the same time, the requirements of complex high-technology artifacts required for war prompted the United States to expend for the first time massive amounts of government funding for technology projects. Those with broad-based theoretical implementation were most readily funded.
By the end of World War II, however, most engineering in the United States had become so theoretical that much of its practical application was lost on working technicians. Increasingly, it became difficult to distinguish between engineering projects and purely scientific explorations without immediately practical application. The reasons for this change were soon visible in the engineering discipline. American engineering faculty were no longer necessarily experienced in industry’s practical needs, and had instead made their careers as theoretically oriented researchers who published scholarly papers in journals but did not design and build machines for public use. Two subcultures emerged that were sometimes contradictory and often combative.
The more complex the theoretical foundations, the more complex the components and the less likely that a single individual, or a single genius with some assistants, could carry to successful completion pathbreaking development. Certainly, this was true in aerospace technology, which has since World War II of necessity been a group effort with various individuals in charge of certain segments of the work under some overall management to keep the effort afloat. There might be an overall project manager, but the demands of the project always forced more breadth and depth of knowledge than even a genius of a da Vinci or a Wright or a Goddard could master. Indeed, it might be that the “Renaissance man” was a chimera all along, for complete success was always beyond even the most creative genius’ grasp.
For the successful accomplishment of major aeronautical endeavors engineers have adopted a systems management and integration approach. Each government laboratory, university, and corporate research facility had differing perspectives on how to go about the tasks of accomplishing these endeavors but all parceled work among teams of engineers and technicians.
One of the fundamental tenets of the program management concept was that three critical factors—cost, schedule, and reliability—were interrelated, and had to be managed as a group. Many also recognized these factors’ constancy; if program managers held cost to a specific level, then one of the other two factors, or both of them to a somewhat lesser degree, would be adversely affected. The schedules, dictated by scientific or political requirements, were often firm. Since aircraft had to accomplish practical tasks, program managers always placed a heavy emphasis on reliability, so that failures would be both predictable and minor.
The significance of both of these factors have often forced the third factor, cost, much higher than might have otherwise been the case. To accomplish these goals, aeronautical design organizations increasingly became complex bureaucracies exercising centralized authority over design, engineering, procurement, testing, construction, manufacturing, spare parts, logistics, training, and operations. Understanding the management of complex structures for the successful completion of a multifarious task was an important outgrowth of these efforts. Getting all of the personnel elements to work together has always challenged program managers, regardless of whether or not they were civil service, industry, or university personnel.
At the same time, as aircraft became more costly to develop and organizations became more complex to manage the aircraft system—establishing structures to ensure control over the effort—they set up boundaries often impassable for individual innovation. An irony of the first magnitude is that the most technologically-driven industry in the United States—one built on a series of pathbreaking innovations—has become so expensive to participate in that firms involved in it can hardly afford to support potentially excellent ideas and see them to completion. This has been partially mitigated by efforts in government laboratories and in universities, but too often radical innovations do not find easy adoption.
To be successful in aircraft design, with its rapidly evolving technologies, an organization must be able to stimulate and simulate change, gamble on the future, have a vision that is multi-faceted as well as clear as to objectives, and be able to allocate limited resources and to make external allies. It must reward or tolerate risk-taking and expect some failures. This is a very tall order when dealing with a system as complex and expensive as aviation, where an airframe manufacturer literally bets the company on any new design that it offers. Caution tends to rule in that very dizzying environment.
The logical outgrowth of this has been a search for what amounts to “command innovation.” Can a firm, a government, a university, a research facility, or a person arrange for innovation that will solve some great problem in aeronautical technology? Guaranteeing innovation accounts for not an insignificant quantity of effort in the field. But there seems not to be a formula for such developments and a guarantee for any research project cannot be assured. History suggests that those who contend otherwise are fools or charlatans or both.
There has been a lot of commentary of late about the length of time being required to play major league baseball games. I know from personal experience that many of the Washington Nationals games are more than three hours in length, and it is not uncommon that game can be hour hours or even longer.
Many people have offered fixes for this problem. Most of them require instituting a clock on various aspects of the game. Those include limiting the seconds between pitches or the time the catcher and pitcher can confer on the mound. Other ideas limit the number of trips coaches and managers can make to the mound, the number of warm-up pitches a reliever can take, or the number of times the infielders can sling the ball around the horn.
Any or all of these, and probably others, might be instituted. I hope MLB does not institute a clock. Baseball is the only major sport without a clock and I would like to keep it that way. But the problem is real; we need to speed up games. Here are five half-baked, screwball, tongue-firmly-in-cheek ideas for how to solve the problem.
1. Eliminate extra innings. In the event of a tie at the end of nine innings there should be a home run derby to decide the game, each side sending its best hitter to take ten batting practice pitches and whoever hits the most out wins the game.
2. Eliminate runaway games. If a team scores nine runs, the game is called at the end of the full inning with the victory going to the highest scorer.
3. Alternatively, any game reaching the four hour mark will be decided by the home run derby discussed above.
4. Another alterative, for any game reaching four hours in duration the mascots from the two teams will race around the field to decide the game.
5. Let the spectators decide the winner, again probably at the four hour mark, by texting their vote for one team or the other based on whatever criteria they choose.
Did I say that these are half-baked, screwball, tongue-firmly-in-cheek ideas? They are. Don’t take them seriously.
Historians of the American Frontier: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook. Edited by John R. Wunder. (Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1988. Pp. viii, 827. Bibliography, index. ISBN 0-313-24899-0, $75.00.)
I have been asked recently by several people what they should know about the history of the American frontier, especially in relation to the history of space exploration. Although this is a a book more than 25 years old, it is still a good place to start. Frontier historians have been especially influential interpreters of the American past, and I believe that is one of the reasons that the frontier experience has long been linked to the space arena.
A generation embraced Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis in the first half of the twentieth century, regardless of its sweeping and not always appropriate generalizations, as the explanation for American uniqueness. Historians of the American Frontier, therefore, is an important attempt to come to grips with the people who made the frontier the most significant field of historical study in the first decades of the twentieth century and of those who have carried on the torch.
John R. Wunder, director of the Great Plains Center at the University of Nebraska when this book was published, presents an impressive set of essays on the lives and works of fifty-seven frontier historians. Each chapter, written by a different specialist, includes a brief biography and a complete summary and analysis of publications. Wunder used four criteria to select the people included in this collection: they had to be dead, had to be recognized as leaders in frontier studies, had to produce broadly defined frontier history, and did not have to be either academically oriented or even historians in any strict sense.
Any collected work’s quality is uneven and this book is no exception. Some of the essays are more challenging than others; I found particularly rewarding Robert P. Swierenga’s entry on James C. Malin. There are, however, two built-in difficulties with collections of this type. First, although Historians of the American Frontier is an important attempt to assess frontier historians and their literature, it views the subject from the perspective of individuals only. There remains, unfortunately, no synthesis of the overall field of study. Each historians’ work stands essentially alone.
Second, historians are unevenly represented. Angie Debo, Le Roy Hafen, Reuben Gold Thwaites, Dale L. Morgan, and even Francis Parkman are not found here while less worthy entries abound. The editor anticipated this criticism by suggesting that no historians were “left out by design or accident” and that a second bio-bibliographical volume would re-solve the omissions. In spite of these criticisms, Wunder has produced a fine book that will be permanently useful to scholars, making readily available in a single volume the personalities and core themes of American frontier historiography. It is a useful addition to the tools of the historians in exploring the American frontier.
I have been working on a general history of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor to NASA, and I have been working on a section of jet research in the 1940s and 1950s. Comments on this draft are welcome.
While the NACA missed the opportunity to pioneer the jet engine, by far the most revolutionary technology applied to aircraft since the Wright brothers, in the period after World War II engineers largely at the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory in Cleveland transformed aviation with their powerful, efficient, and safe jet engines. The success of jet aircraft in both Germany and Great Britain in World War II spurred American efforts to catch up to this technology. While the NACA had failed to the technology, its leaders were intent on making the technology better and exploiting in every way possible. The Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory, now Glenn Research Center, forwarded a report in December 1945 entitled “Survey of Fundamental Problems Requiring Research” that recommended the expansion of research on the technologies of turbojets, ramjets, and rockets.
The report concluded: “The simultaneous development of aerodynamic shapes for high-speed flight, and the use of jet-reaction power systems has suddenly placed the aeronautical engineer in position to attain supersonic speeds, but as yet only the outer fringes of research on this mode of transportation have been touched.” The fundamental technology that the NACA pioneered was the axial flow compressor. The first jets were powered by centrifugal compressors; systems that were inefficient and underpowered for anything but the lightest fighter jets. What was needed was axial flow compressors, but the technologies were not well known and most of the baseline knowledge was limited to a few empirical tests over a limited aerodynamic regime that emphasized airfoil research and little else. NACA researchers would change that in the years the followed.
As researchers George E. Smith and David A. Mindell noted, axial flow compression was attained by “stacking a sequence of these airfoil profiles radially on top of one another as if the air flows through the blade row in a modular series of radially stacked two-dimensional blade passages.” The expansion of this approach required a detailed, lengthy, and expensive research agenda only able to be carried out by a government laboratory. Several different efforts emerged at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, so named after the passing of the longtime NACA Director of Research in 1948. The contribution was a three-volume “Compressor Bible,” issued in final form in 1956 after a decade of research at Lewis.
This study was based on a pain-staking empirical research effort that included wind tunnel research and flight research, as well as theoretical studies. This research set the standard for knowledge about axial-flow compression for more than twenty-five years after its publication. According to Smith and Mindell:
The empirical component of the NACA design method was based primarily on a huge number of cascade performance tests of NACA 65-Series airfoils carried out at Langley.…These data allowed designers first to select preferred airfoil shapes along a blade to achieve a given design performance, including thermodynamic loss requirements, and then to predict the performance of the airfoils at specified off-design operating conditions. In large part because of the availability of this data-base, NACA 65-Series airfoils became the most widely used airfoils in axial compressors.
The knowledge gained through the NACA’s research filtered out of the agency through the usual means of technical reports and personal contacts as well as the departure from the NACA of several key researchers who moved to General Electric and developed axial-flow compressor engines, especially turbofans, into the mainstay of American jet technology. Langley’s Jack Erwin and Lewis’s John Klapproth, Karl Kovach, and Lin Wright departed for GE in 1955 and 1956.
These engineers proved instrumental in designing the path-breaking large axial-flow turbofan, the J-79 military jet engine powering the B-58 Hustler, Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, and North American A-5 Vigilante, oriented toward performance as high as Mach 2. The commercial equivalent, the CJ805, powered the Convair 880 and 990 airliners. Under the leadership of John Blanton at GE, this team successfully developed a powerful engine that found use on both across a broad spectrum. The NACA’s contribution included not only basic research but design expertise. The role of Lin Wright proved especially critical; he was an African American engineer from Wayne State University in Detroit who worked for a decade at Lewis, and then transitioned to GE just as the Civil Rights Crusade was emerging as a force in American politics. Far from an activist, Wright contributed most to that cause through his excellence as an engineer on the cutting edge of aeronautical research and development.
The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story. By Lily Koppel. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2013. Illustrations (some color), author’s note, acknowledgments, 272 pages, hardcover with dustjacket. $28 USD.
On one level Lily Koppel’s new book is a breezy, entertaining account of the experiences of the wives of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts of the 1960s. The public persona of these women was always “proud,” “thrilled,” and “happy,” their watchwords. Their private well-being, however, was always something less. Read at this level The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story is a restatement of the lives of many wives of the 1960s whose husbands were in the public eye. They spent their time caring for their families, each other, and supporting the efforts of NASA in reaching for the Moon. Lily Koppel is to be commended for persuading many of the astronauts’ wives, widows, and ex’s to speak at length with her. This book is virtually entirely the result of interviews with a sizable number of them. Gossipy and one-dimensional, with more on fashion and family than on the space program, it is a fine beach read.
Koppel describes how the wives of the astronauts formed their own little clique in Houston in the early 1960s. Originally it was just the wives of the first Mercury seven astronauts, led by “Mother” Marge Slayton, wife of Deke, who commanded the group with an authority that even her husband must have envied. The author does not make this point—perhaps she is unaware of it—but these women transferred their lifestyle from their military experience, replicating its social networks, hierarchies, and priorities at NASA. Anyone who has ever spent any time on a military base understands the responsibilities and authority of the wives of senior officers. Essentially, this called for the wives of officers to set the standard for the moral and social well-being of the base, to serve as a support for group members in both good and difficult times, and to enforce the principles of the organization. That is exactly what the astronauts’ wives did, as relayed in this book.
They also locked arms in situations when threats to the members of the group arose. They could turn, seemingly at a moment’s notice, to offer aid and comfort or sanction and censure as directed by the leaders of the group. This took two central forms as related in The Astronaut Wives Club. First, and Koppel writes about this extensively and with grace, this took place when one of their number suffered the loss of a husband. Astronauts engaged in a risky profession, so did pilots from which the astronaut corps was drawn, and some died in the performance of their duties. Charlie Bassett and Elliot See were killed in an airplane crash. Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were killed in their Apollo spacecraft during a ground test. Those events are chronicled here, and in both instances these women spun into action to care for the family, to offer support for the widow, and “to maintain an even keel” (a nautical term used by Alan Shepard in many situations). This was, of course, a situation they knew well from their experiences with their husbands’ active duty flying.
Second, and this was also something they transferred from their military experiences as well, the wives of the astronauts had to deal with their husbands’ infidelities. The opportunities for cheating husbands, however, were greater for the astronauts than for most other families. The astronauts spent a lot of time at Cape Canaveral through the week, leaving their families in Houston. They were celebrities of a pretty high level and found themselves pursued by women at every turn. Some of the husbands, but not all, lost sight of their marriage vows. Indeed, some were notorious womanizers, such as Gus Grissom. Grissom was not alone, and when Apollo 7 astronaut Donn Eisele divorced his wife Harriet to marry another woman that he had been seeing for some time, it pulled the covers off a longtime practice. The other wives surrounded Harriet with loving support and ostracized the second wife. It did not take long for Eisele and the scandal tied to him to be exorcised from the community.
At the same time, so much of the response to infidelity detailed in this book involved women talking about the husbands of others, not their own experience. This type of denial may have served to facilitate the peace of mind of the aggrieved wife, but it suggests that the astronaut corps was more of a Payton Place than anyone seems willing to admit. This is made clear by something mentioned but certainly not dwelt upon, the fact that a large number of the couples divorced, and it appears that some only stayed together as long as they did out of a sense responsibility not to embarrass NASA.
For all of what is positive in this book it is unfortunate that The Astronaut Wives Club is not much more than a beach read; it certainly could have been much more substantive. At no point does the author draw back from the anecdotes to ask larger questions and offer anything approaching a satisfying analysis. While this book is strong on anecdotes, I found myself asking the “so what” question as I read Koppel’s prose. What does it all mean?
It is unfortunate that Koppel did not offer a broader interpretive frame. Perhaps others will be able to use the oral histories that she conducted with the wives as source material for future analyses. In the end the voices of these women represent a valuable addition to what we know about America’s pioneering years of the space program and I congratulate Koppel on assembling those recollections. We do not learn much new that we did not already have a sense of from this book, and that is the real disappointment. It is an opportunity missed.
As it is The Astronaut Wives Club is an engaging, enjoyable book on a subject that has been under-appreciated in the history of the space program. The astronauts’ wives made an important contribution to the success of the effort—of that there is no doubt—but the parameters and the substance of that contribution remains for others to explore. As it is, Lily Koppel performs a good service in raising the consciousness of everyone to this neglected story, sketching out the broad contours of the lives of these women, and explaining how we still have much to learn about the people of NASA during the space race.
Nearly thirty years ago historian Alex Roland published a very fine history of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) with the main title, Model Research. It was an ironic title, cleverly emphasizing the aeronautical investigations that the NACA undertook with wind tunnels. In working on a new, short history of the NACA and NASA and I have come to appreciate the importance of that title. The NACA did much more than work with wind tunnels, but those instruments/facilities certainly enabled its path-breaking research.
The wind tunnels of the NACA, in which models of aircraft could be tested for their flight characteristics, certainly proved critical to the advance of aviation technology in the pre-World War II era. This had been the case for any pioneering aeronautical research prior to the establishment of the NACA, and such remained the same as the history of the agency progressed.
The NACA built its first wind tunnel at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (LMAL) in 1917. It was not much of a tunnel, copying one previously used at the British National Physical Laboratory. Definitely not a world-class facility, the NACA’s first wind tunnel was obsolete before it was even built. Knowing this, the NACA’s primary purpose for this “Model Tunnel” involved obtaining experience in how to use a wind tunnel.
NACA Wind Tunnel No. 1 followed the first attempt; it was a low-speed tunnel with no return circuit for the air passing through the test section. A 200-horsepower electric motor generated airspeeds of 90 mph in the 5-foot-diameter circular test section. Operational in the summer of 1920, it was used for testing models but the results were ineffective and non-duplicable elsewhere. This Wind Tunnel No. 1 also was more useful as a learning experience for agency engineers than anything else.
It was the Variable Density Tunnel at Langley that really set the NACA on a firm footing in terms of ground based research. This success led directly to the establishment of several other wind tunnels at Langley by the latter 1920s. Two were built first. The first had a 5 feet test section tilted at 90 degrees to study aircraft spins. The problem of a spinning aircraft was both common and poorly understood; “tail spins” proved fatal for many pilots of the era. And this tunnel helped aeronautics engineers understand the problem and develop countermeasures for it.
A second tunnel at Langley, a 7 x 10-foot Atmospheric Wind Tunnel (AWT), began operations in 1930. It provided the capability to study high-lift wings and general problems of stability and control in airframes of the 1930s. The AWT established itself almost as immediately as an exceptionally versatile research tool. Four additional wind tunnels followed with nearly the same size and capability. These revolutionized knowledge about airfoil shapes, airframe aerodynamics, guidance and control systems, and drag reduction. It also aided in pursuing understanding of the pressures on airframes, the compressibility problem, and aerodynamic loads and stresses on the aircraft.
Thereafter, the NACA built another wind tunnel to test propellers. The brainchild of Director of Research George W. Lewis new Propeller Research Tunnel (PRT) was large enough to place aircraft with their propellers operating in the test section. Scaling up was no small problem; the NACA has never built a wind tunnel larger than 5 feet in diameter before. The PRT demonstrated its worth almost at once. In addition to propeller research, it could be used for drag research and NASA engineers found that exposed landing gears contributed up to 40 percent of fuselage drag. Retractable landing gear emerged from this project as the state of the art for aircraft seeking greater speeds. PRT engineers also found that that multi-engine aircraft perform best when engine nacelles were built in-line with the wing. These results influenced every major aircraft of the latter 1930s and may be seen in the shape the DC-3 transport, and both the B-17 and B-24 bombers of World War II.
In addition, the NACA built in the middle 1930s its preeminent wind tunnel before World War II, the so-called “Full-Scale Tunnel” (FST). Built under the direction of Smith J. De France, the FST boasted a 30 x 60 feet test section, with an open throat that facilitated the installation of full-size aircraft. Two massive propellers, driven by two 4,000-horsepower electric motors, pushed air through the test section at speeds between 25 and 118 mph. Once completed in 1931, the FST tunnel building offered an imposing site on the Langley campus with its large air handling system and imposing brick office and research structure. Operating until the 1990s, the FST had a profound influence on the course of American aeronautical research and development. Likewise, a 19-foot pressure tunnel also helped to advance the state of the art in 1939 when completed. Virtually every advanced aircraft of World War II was tested in these two tunnels, so were many commercial vehicles and spacecraft from the NASA era.
Finally, the completion of the NACA’s High Speed Tunnel (HST), with a 22 inch test section, in 1934 enabled engineers to undertake research in the Mach 1 range. Containing a vertical test section, aircraft models were mounted facing downward and a blast of highly pressurized air would provide only a minute of test time to see compressibility flows and aerodynamic flutter on airframes in high speed conditions. This tunnel proved so useful that engineers lobbied for one with a 24-inch test section, put into operation late in 1934. It contained the first Schlieren photography system installed at Langley, allowing engineers to view dynamic airflows near Mach 1. This work eventually made it possible to build 400+ mph fighters for the United States during World War II.
These wind tunnels, from the Variable Density Tunnel to the Full Scale Tunnel and beyond, enabled the NACA to contribute path-breaking research in aeronautics for the United States. They were the instruments that made the agency, which were small and not well-funded, the best in the world at aeronautical R&D by the time of World War II. As historian Deborah G. Douglas concluded in a 1999 essay: “By the late 1920s, the NACA’s Langley Aeronautical Laboratory had begun to earn an international reputation, largely due to the construction of a trio of pioneering wind tunnels (the Variable Density Tunnel that became operational in 1922, the Propeller Research Tunnel in 1927, and the Full Scale Tunnel in 1931).”
This is a stunning live performance of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” by Heart at the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, D.C., on December 2, 2012. Ann and Nancy Wilson offer a memorable performance. This song features Jason Bonham on drums. He wears a Clockwork Orange bowler hat in honor of his father. Enjoy!