The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was a U.S. federal agency founded on March 3, 1915, to undertake, promote, and institutionalize aeronautical research. On October 1, 1958, the agency was dissolved, and its assets and personnel transferred to the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NACA was an initialism, i.e. it was pronounced as individual letters, rather than as a whole word (as was NASA during the early years after being established).
Among other advancements, NACA research and development produced the NACA duct, a type of air intake used in modern automotive applications, the NACA cowling, and several series of NACA airfoils which are still used in aircraft manufacturing.
During World War II, NACA was described as "The Force Behind Our Air Supremacy" due to its key role in producing working superchargers for high altitude bombers, and for producing the laminar wing profiles for the North American P-51 Mustang. NACA was also key in developing the area rule that is used on all modern supersonic aircraft, and conducted the key compressibility research that enabled the Bell X-1 to break the sound barrier.
Founder: Woodrow Wilson
Founded: 3 March 1915
Headquarters Location: Washington, D.C., United States
Ceased Operations: 1 October 1958
Superseding Agency: NASA
Dissolved: October 1, 1958
Jurisdiction: Federal government of the United States
NACA was established by the federal government through enabling legislation as an emergency measure during World War I to promote industry, academic, and government coordination on war-related projects.
It was modeled on similar national agencies found in Europe: the French L'Etablissement Central de l'Aérostation Militaire in Meudon (now Office National d'Etudes et de Recherches Aerospatiales), the German Aerodynamic Laboratory of the University of Göttingen, and the Russian Aerodynamic Institute of Koutchino (replaced in 1918 with the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI), which is still in existence). The most influential agency upon which the NACA was based was the British Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.
In December 1912, President William Howard Taft had appointed a National Aerodynamical Laboratory Commission chaired by Robert S. Woodward, president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Legislation was introduced in both houses of Congress early in January 1913 to approve the commission, but when it came to a vote, the legislation was defeated.
Charles D. Walcott, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution from 1907 to 1927, took up the effort, and in January 1915, Senator Benjamin R. Tillman, and Representative Ernest W. Roberts introduced identical resolutions recommending the creation of an advisory committee as outlined by Walcott. The purpose of the committee was "to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution, and to determine the problems which should be experimentally attacked and to discuss their solution and their application to practical questions." Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote that he "heartily [endorsed] the principle" on which the legislation was based. Walcott suggested the tactic of adding the resolution to the Naval Appropriations Bill.
According to one source, "The enabling legislation for the NACA slipped through almost unnoticed as a rider attached to the Naval Appropriation Bill, on March 3, 1915." The committee of 12 people, all unpaid, were allocated a budget of $5,000 per year.
President Woodrow Wilson signed it into law the same day, thus formally creating the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, as it was called in the legislation, on the last day of the 63rd Congress.
The act of Congress creating NACA, approved March 3, 1915, reads, "...It shall be the duty of the advisory committee for aeronautics to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution.
The NACA Test Force at the High-Speed Flight Station in Edwards, California. The white aircraft in the foreground is a Douglas Skyrocket.
On January 29, 1920, President Wilson appointed pioneering flier and aviation engineer Orville Wright to NACA's board. By the early 1920s, it had adopted a new and more ambitious mission: to promote military and civilian aviation through applied research that looked beyond current needs. NACA researchers pursued this mission through the agency's impressive collection of in-house wind tunnels, engine test stands, and flight test facilities. Commercial and military clients were also permitted to use NACA facilities on a contract basis.
- Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (Hampton, Virginia)
- Ames Aeronautical Laboratory (Moffett Field)
- Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory (Lewis Research Center)
- Muroc Flight Test Unit (Edwards Air Force Base)
Transformation into NASA:
Special Committee on Space Technology: Special Committee on Space Technology in 1958: Wernher von Braun; fourth from the left, Hendrik Wade Bode
On November 21, 1957, Hugh Dryden, NACA's director, established the Special Committee on Space Technology. The committee, also called the Stever Committee after its chairman, Guyford Stever, was a special steering committee that was formed with the mandate to coordinate various branches of the federal government, private companies as well as universities within the United States with NACA's objectives and also harness their expertise in order to develop a space program.
Wernher von Braun, technical director at the US Army's Ballistic Missile Agency would have a Jupiter C rocket ready to launch a satellite in 1956, only to have it delayed, and the Soviets would launch Sputnik 1 in October 1957.
On January 14, 1958, Dryden published "A National Research Program for Space Technology," which stated
- It is of great urgency and importance to our country both from consideration of our prestige as a nation as well as military necessity that this challenge (Sputnik) be met by an energetic program of research and development for the conquest of space.
- It is accordingly proposed that the scientific research be the responsibility of a national civilian agency working in close cooperation with the applied research and development groups required for weapon systems development by the military. The pattern to be followed is that already developed by the NACA and the military services.
- The NACA is capable, by rapid extension and expansion of its effort, of providing leadership in space technology.
On March 5, 1958, James Killian, who chaired the President's Science Advisory Committee, wrote a memorandum to the President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Titled, "Organization for Civil Space Programs," it encouraged the President to sanction the creation of NASA. He wrote that a civil space program should be based on a "strengthened and redesignated" NACA, indicating that NACA was a "going Federal research agency" with 7,500 employees and $300 million worth of facilities, which could expand its research program "with a minimum of delay."
- George P. Scriven (United States Army) (1915–1916)
- William F. Durand (Stanford University) (1916–1918)
- John R. Freeman (consultant) (1918–1919)
- Charles Doolittle Walcott (Smithsonian Institution) (1920–1927)
- Joseph Sweetman Ames (Johns Hopkins University) (1927–1939)
- Vannevar Bush (Carnegie Institution) (1940–1941)
- Jerome C. Hunsaker (Navy, MIT) (1941–1956)
- James H. Doolittle (Shell Oil) (1957–1958)