— The story is familiar: Having lost its technological edge and with the threat of war looming, the United States created a federal agency to help get the nation
back on

But the
domain was the air, not space;
those with the superior technology were European nations
, not the Soviet Union;
 and the conflict
was World War I, not the Cold War. The agency created to address the gathering threat was not
NASA, but
its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA)

Despite being the birthplace of the airplane, thanks to the Wright Brothers’ first powered, piloted, heavier-than-air flight in December 1903 at Kitty Hawk, N.C., the United States had fallen behind European airplane technology in the subsequent decade, the NASA History Web site said. And
airplanes had begun to show promise on the battlefields of Europe during the First World War.

Before NACA, there was no official U.S. federal support for aeronautics, according to the NASA History Web site.

Modeled on the British Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which was formed in 1909, NACA began as a rider to the 1915 Naval Appropriations Bill, the NASA History Web site said.

When created, NACA consisted of 12 unpaid members,
 most of whom included members of the military, government agencies and
 research universities, according to the NASA History Web site.

committee was created to supervise and guide
the U.S. government on aviation research matters
, not conduct research itself, and thus
was not intended to have its own laboratory facilities. This was reflected in a budget of
during each of
first five years; research deemed
worth pursuing by the
 panel was farmed out, the NASA Web site said.

That changed in June 1920 with the establishment of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Va., the NASA History Web site said. From then on, NACA
 became an instrumental part of applied aeronautical

There were two NACAs, American University in Washington public affairs professor and NASA expert Howard McCurdy said in a Feb. 27 phone interview. There was the advisory board that served as advisors and there was the research aspect.

“They’re in the community, but they don’t resemble the community,” McCurdy said about the advanced research facility in then-rural Hampton. The Langley engineers and researchers were insular, self-sufficient and capable, he said.

Langley built
several advanced wind tunnels in the 1920s and 1930s, including the variable-density wind tunnel that was used to do a 10-year study on airfoil design, the results of which were
published in 1933 and whose numbering system for airfoils is still in use, according to the NASA History Web site.

In the late 1930s, reports of Germany’s superior aircraft designs spurred the creation of two new NACA research facilities: Ames Aeronautical Laboratory at
Moffet Field, Calif., in 1939, and the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory in Cleveland in 1941, the NASA History Web site said.

In 1944, NACA and the U.S. Air Force contracted with Bell Aircraft Corp. to develop a supersonic vehicle
. A NACA Langley-led group was involved from the beginning in
the development process, which culminated in
 October 1947 when
 Chuck Yeager piloted Bell’s X-1 on the first supersonic flight.

In the mid to late 1950s, NACA was devoting
an ever-increasing portion of its resources and facilities to rocket research,
including designs for the Little Joe, which later became a part of the Mercury program,
 the NASA History Web site said. That and the fact that then-
President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration favored a civilian-led space agency
made NACA the choice to be reinvented as
 in October 1958.

“The attitude of the old NACA people was you couldn’t trust the contractor,” McCurdy said. That attitude eased the transition from NACA to NASA, McCurdy said. And it carried over to NASA’s early manned space program from the Langley-based Space Task Group assigned to design, procure and manage flight operations for the Mercury program, McCurdy said.