From the wind tunnels the made commercial aviation possible to the analog machines that preceded the computer, a visual history of the spirit of innovation presently unworthy of the government’s dollar.
Among the great joys of spending countless hours rummaging through archives is the occasional serendipitous discovery of something absolutely wonderful: Case in point, these gorgeous black-and-white photographs of vintage NASA (and NASA predecessor NACA) facilities, which I found semi-accidentally in NASA’s public domain image archive. Taken between the 1920s and 1950s, when the golden age of space travel was still a beautiful dream, decades before the peak of the Space Race, and more than half a century before the future of space exploration had sunk to the bottom of the governmental priorities barrel, these images exude the stark poeticism of Berenice Abbott’s science photographs and remind us, as Isaac Asimov did, of NASA’s enormous value right here on Earth.
NACA's first wind tunnel, located at Langley Field in Hampton, VA, was an open-circuit wind tunnel completed in 1920. Essentially a replica of the ten-year-old tunnel at the British National Physical Laboratory, it was a low-speed facility which involved the one-twentieth-scale models. Because tests showed that the models compared poorly with the actual aircraft by a factor of 20, a suggestion was made to construct a sealed airtight chamber in which air could be compressed to the same extent as the model being tested. The new tunnel, the Variable Density Tunnel was the first of its kind and has become a National Historic Landmark. (April 1, 1921)
Pressure tank of the Variable Density Tunnel at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, Hampton, VA. Photograph courtesy Northrop-Grumman Shipbuilding-Newport News (February 3, 1922). The tank was shipped by barge to NACA, now NASA Langley Research Center, in June 1922.
Workmen in the patternmakers' shop manufacture a wing skeleton for a Thomas-Morse MB-3 airplane for pressure distribution studies in flight. (June 1, 1922)
A Langley researcher ponders the future, in mid-1927, of the Sperry M-1 Messenger, the first full-scale airplane tested in the Propeller Research Tunnel. Standing in the exit cone is Elton W. Miller, Max M. Munk's successor as chief of aerodynamics. (1927)
16-foot-high speed wind tunnel downstream view through cooling tower section. (February 8, 1942)
Free-flight investigation of 1/4-scale dynamic model of XFV-1 in NACA Ames 40x80ft wind tunnel. (August 18, 1942)
Engine on Torque Stand at the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio, now known as the John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field. Torque is the twisting motion produced by a spinning object. (April 15, 1944)
Detail view of Schlieren setup in the 1 x 3 Foot Supersonic Wind Tunnel. (October 26, 1945)
Boeing B-29 long range bomber model was tested for ditching characteristics in the Langley Tank No. 2 (Early 1946)
Looking down the throat of the world's largest tunnel, 40 by 80 feet, located at Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, Moffett Field, California. The camera is stationed in the tunnel's largest section, 173 feet wide by 132 feet high. Here at top speed the air, driven by six 40-foot fans, is moving about 35 to 40 miles per hour. The rapid contraction of the throat (or nozzle) speeds up this air flow to more than 250 miles per hour in the oval test section, which is 80 feet wide and 40 feet high. The tunnel encloses 900 tons of air, 40 tons of which rush through the throat per second at maximum speed. (1947)
Analog Computing Machine in the Fuel Systems Building. This is an early version of the modern computer. The device is located in the Engine Research Building at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, now John H. Glenn Research Center, Cleveland Ohio. (September 28, 1949)
Guide vanes in the 19-foot Pressure Wind Tunnel at Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, form an ellipse 33 feet high and 47 feet wide. The 23 vanes force the air to turn corners smoothly as it rushes through the giant passages. If vanes were omitted, the air would pile up in dense masses along the outside curves, like water rounding a bend in a fast brook. Turbulent eddies would interfere with the wind tunnel tests, which require a steady flow of fast, smooth air. (March 15, 1950
24-foot-diameter swinging valve at various stages of opening and closing in the 10ft x 10ft Supersonic Wind Tunnel. (May 17, 1956)
A television camera is focused by NACA technician on a ramjet engine model through the schlieren optical windows of the 10 x 10 Foot Supersonic Wind Tunnel's test section. Closed-circuit television enables aeronautical research scientists to view the ramjet, used for propelling missiles, while the wind tunnel is operating at speeds from 1500 to 2500 mph. (8.570) The tests were performed at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, now John H. Glenn Research Center. (April 21, 1957)
8ft x 6ft Supersonic Wind Tunnel Test-Section showing changes made in Stainless Steel walls with 17 inch inlet model installation. The model is the ACN Nozzle model used for aircraft engines. The Supersonic Wind Tunnel is located in the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, now John H. Glenn Research Center. (August 31, 1957)
The Gimbal Rig, formally known as the MASTIF of Multiple Axis Space Test Inertia Facility, was engineered to simulate the tumbling and rolling motions of a space capsule and train the Mercury astronauts to control roll, pitch and yaw by activating nitrogen jets, used as brakes and bring the vehicle back into control. This facility was built at the Lewis Research Center, now John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field. (October 29, 1957)
Lockheed C-141 model in the Transonic Dynamics Tunnel (TDT). By the late 1940s, with the advent of relatively thin, flexible aircraft wings, the need was recognized for testing dynamically and elastically scaled models of aircraft. In 1954, NASA's predecessor agency, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), began converting the Langley 19-foot Pressure Tunnel for dynamic testing of aircraft structures. The old circular test section was reduced to 16 x 16 feet, and slotted walls were added for transonic operation. The TDT was provided with special oscillator vanes upstream of the test section to create controlled gusty air to simulate aircraft response to gusts. A model support system was devised that freed the model to pitch and plunge as the wings started oscillating in response to the fluctuating airstream. The TDT was completed in 1959. It was the world's first aeroelastic testing tunnel. (November 16, 1962)
Alas, the names of the photographers — as is often the case with creators working on the government dollar — were not preserved. If you recognize any, get in touch and help credit them.
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