- NASA’s First A: Aeronautics from 1958 to 2008 by Robert G. Ferguson
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA, traces its roots to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), established during World War I and dissolved in 1958 with the formation of NASA after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. While histories of NASA universally acknowledge this background, the narratives that follow invariably focus on spaceflight. To a degree this makes sense, for, as historian Robert G. Ferguson notes: “The human space program has always been the center of NASA’s mission” (p. 230). Still, ignoring NASA’s “first A” not only obscures the agency’s many contributions to aviation technology, it also overlooks a useful case study on how a smaller community reacted to changes both within and beyond the context of its parent organization. With NASA’s First A, Ferguson provides a welcome corrective as he explores the evolving and often contested role of aeronautical research within America’s space agency.
Ferguson opens by arguing that far from being a moribund organization, NACA “helped bring about the Space Age and invent a space agency” (p. 1). Because few scholars have analyzed the broader place of aeronautics within NASA (as opposed to the several excellent case studies of specific projects like the X-15 rocket plane or histories of individual aeronautical research centers), he finds few historiographical bones to pick. One exception is his assertion that NACA’s leadership successfully jockeyed to position itself as the lead civilian agency for U.S. space exploration in the wake of Sputnik, only to be overwhelmed by the new mission as the newly renamed organization rapidly expanded beyond NACA’s existing research centers and organizational model. This challenges historian Alex Roland’s conclusion that the old organization had outlived its mandate and was thus “laid to rest because it had accomplished what it set out to do” (pp. 59–61; see also Alex Roland, Model Research: The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, 1915–1958, 1985, p. 303).
Subsequent chapters describe the changing fortunes of NASA’s first A over the next five decades. Between the agency’s creation in 1958 and the last Apollo moon mission in 1972, Ferguson finds that aeronautical research, though eclipsed by the publicity and funding of the international Space Race, continued largely as it had during NACA’s final decade thanks to “benign neglect” by headquarters (p. 92). Committees of engineers at various centers conducted “fundamental research” on whatever problems they found interesting, confident that any knowledge produced would ultimately find practical applications in commercial and military aviation (p. 57).
Ferguson shifts to the agency’s existential crisis of the post-Apollo [End Page 997] 1970s when, amid post-Vietnam public distrust of big government programs, OPEC’s oil embargo, and growing concerns about pollution, NASA headquarters increasingly applied centralized, mission-oriented project management techniques to all endeavors. This approach worked for well-defined missions (e.g., sending humans to the moon) but eroded the tradition of fundamental aeronautical research. Engineers responded by repackaging their work into discrete projects that addressed specific problems or promised concrete results. Some, like the digital fly-by-wire system (where computers help pilots control the plane) or Computational Fluid Dynamics (where computer modeling replaces wind tunnel testing) were largely new programs. Others, including the Aircraft Energy Efficiency program, were marketed as NASA’s response to contemporary public concerns, but in fact combined separate, ongoing projects that began as fundamental research during the previous decade. Under the Reagan administration, heightened tensions with the Soviet Union created a period of stable funding for military-related aeronautics projects at NASA, but the end of the cold war in the 1990s led to another era of aeronautical researchers attempting to reinvent themselves, this time by emulating big-ticket space projects. This strategy worked for a time but ultimately backfired. When budgets grew too large later that decade the programs were cut altogether, leading...