National Geographic : 1960 Jul
Exploring Tomorrow With the Space Agency would spiral around the home planet for a time, building up speed, then head for some distant target. Again let's consider a Mars trip. When they reached a Martian orbit, astronauts would descend to the planet in a little chemi cally powered "space dinghy." Later they would rendezvous with the mother ship for the return voyage. A round trip might last 550 days. NASA Supplants Older Agency Junkets to Mars are the product of recent thinking, but NASA is not the Johnny-come lately to space planning that one might as sume. At its birth on October 1, 1958, NASA absorbed the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), a distinguished re search organization. This predecessor, though concentrating on aviation, accomplished much spadework for the transition to space.* The new agency's inheritance included 8,000 employees, many highly trained, and five in stallations: Langley, Lewis, and Ames, plus a rocket launching facility at Wallops Island, Virginia, and a flight research center at Ed wards Air Force Base, in California. Born half grown, NASA quickly matured. It took over the Navy's Project Vanguard team and assumed the Army's contract rela tionship with Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, California. Acquisition of Dr. von Braun's group at Huntsville, Alabama, added 5,500 employees to the payroll, and the new agency also took title to Army laboratories there, valued at $100,000,000. President Ei senhower has named this installation the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in honor of the late General Marshall. Additionally, NASA is building the Goddard Space Flight Center at Greenbelt, Maryland, a multimillion-dollar laboratory named for the late rocket pioneer, Dr. Robert H. God dard. With this accretion, says the agency, its rapid growth will be virtually complete. Employees of the old NACA hold many of the new agency's key jobs, especially in research. They have long had a reputation for legerdemain in solving aircraft problems, but I was impressed at how easily they have adjusted to totally new areas of work. Lewis Research Center, which specializes in propulsion, built a $13,000,000 materials testing reactor at Plum Brook, a former Army Ordnance facility near Sandusky, Ohio. Few Lewis scientists knew much about nuclear engineering, but they educated themselves, designed the reactor, and soon will operate it. Their research aims at nuclear rocket prob lems and power plants for space ships. At Ames Dr. Max. Heaslet heads a "think group" called the Theoretical Aerodynamics Section. He admits this old name is a mis nomer because the thoughts of his men are now out in space. How do solar flares affect the warming of the earth? What do we know -and what must we learn-about planetary atmospheres? These are typical problems. Heaslet's men, who formerly specialized in air-flow studies, now sacrifice many nights to the study of new disciplines, such as astro physics. "You leaf and you browse," said Heaslet. "When one of the boys comes up with an idea, we submit it to the abrasive action of the group." Robert T. Jones, a member of the group, suggested the swept-back wing for supersonic flight in 1945-unaware that a German had hit upon the idea at about the same time. Today the distinguished Jones gives little thought to airplanes. A mathematically in clined engineer, he obligingly lectured me for half an hour on an application of Einstein's relativity theory to space travel. Switch From Missiles to Meteors Another long-time Ames aerodynamic ex pert, H. Julian Allen, won fame as the brain behind the blunt-nosed missile shape. In earlier experiments warheads with needle noses burned up in the atmosphere. Streamlining had worked well in high-speed aircraft, since it lessened air resistance. But good aerody namic shapes trap heat along their sleek sides; warheads, traveling far faster than aircraft, cannot withstand the savage temperatures. "Half the heat generated by friction was going into the missiles," Allen told me. "I reasoned we had to deflect that heat into the air and let it dissipate. Therefore stream lined shapes were the worst possible; they had to be blunt." Allen's brain child works so successfully that the strong shock waves from today's nose cones carry off 99 percent of the frictional heat. Not illogically, Allen seeks new clues to entry riddles by studying meteors. Reading up on the subject, he found that people who happened to be near falling meteors often * See "Fact Finding for Tomorrow's Planes," by Dr. Hugh L. Dryden, Director of NACA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, December, 1953.