We have heard quite a lot of late, some of it coming in the context of the 2012 presidential campaign, about the importance of NASA returning to its roots as a research and development agency dedicated to advancing the basic technology for spaceflight that may then be transferred to the private sector for further development and application. Invoking the NACA model is often a part of this discussion. NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, was NASA’s immediate predecessor. Created in 1915, NACA’s charter called for it “to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution.”
So what was the NACA model for technology transfer? With its mandate clearly stated, NACA’s research procedures evolved into a reasonably stable approach by the 1920s and remained virtually the same until World War II. It involved the NACA leadership in regularly soliciting and/or receiving suggestions for research projects from several sources. This included the military services, which provided the bulk of the suggestions; other government agencies, especially the Bureau of Standards and the Department of Commerce; the NACA staff, most often technical personnel at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory; and outside sources, especially the aeronautical industry, which asked for specific research, such as on the engine cowling problem in 1927. NACA also sponsored, beginning in 1926, an annual industry/government/academia aeronautical conference to obtain research requests, interchange ideas and get feedback on its work.
Requests from the military services and other government agencies went directly to the NACA executive committee and were approved without question provided they did not conflict with research already under way. Proposals from the NACA staff and outside sources went to one of several specialty subcommittees, where they were reviewed for their technical merits. If found to be appropriate projects, they were prioritized and sent to the NACA executive committee for final approval.
In all research proposals, NACA sought to pursue investigations that promised the compilation of fundamental aeronautical knowledge applicable to all flight, not just to the prototype or project or instrument that prompted the proposal. For research for the military services, however, NACA met all research requests, whether for fundamental research or not. When a project was approved, the NACA director of research signed a research authorization providing the general parameters of the project and a funding limit, both of which could be changed at a future time if appropriate. Regular review of active research authorizations led to cancellation or consolidation of those that proved less productive.
Most NACA research was accomplished “in house” by scientists or engineers on the federal payroll. Work conducted under research authorizations might be of short duration or could be years in the accomplishment. Short-duration work was often aimed at resolving a specific technical problem, many being tied to the development of a military aircraft prototype. One example of this approach was the effort to improve the aerodynamic efficiency of aircraft, an especially important activity in World War II as NACA performed work on drag cleanup for 23 different military aircraft.
Many longer research projects took years to complete and were redefined and given additional monies repeatedly to pursue technological questions. A good example of a longer-term effort was Research Authorization 201, “Investigation of Various Methods of Improving Wing Characteristics by Control of the Boundary Layer,” signed Jan. 21, 1927. It provided for broad-based research at NACA on methods for airflow along the surface of the wings, thereby improving the aerodynamics of flight. Research took place between 1927 and 1944, taking a variety of twists and turns. Those efforts were channeled at first toward solving immediate practical objectives that could be used by industry and other clients. Later the NACA staff pursued other avenues in wing research, and the result was that NACA was able to greatly advance boundary layer control through modification of airfoil shape, demonstrating the serendipitous nature of research. The boundary layer research by NACA engineers is still being used as the foundation for current aerodynamic design efforts.
As research was being conducted, NACA printed its findings, and this proved to be the most significant output from the agency’s activities. NACA issued several types of reports describing research findings:
- Technical Reports: The most prestigious, most polished, most important and most widely distributed report, Technical Reports described the final results of a research effort and made “lasting contributions to the body of aeronautical knowledge.”
- Technical Notes: These reported on work in progress, offered interim findings or served as final reports for less significant research activities.
- Research Memoranda: Introduced in 1946, Research Memoranda reported on classified work for the military.
- Advance Confidential Reports: Also introduced after World War II, Advance Confidential Reports reported on sensitive military aeronautical subjects such as jet engines, low-drag wings or investigations of specific military aircraft types.
- Bulletins: These were short progress reports on limited phases of larger research projects.
- Memorandum Reports: These reported on pieces of aeronautical research of interest to a very small group of clients, generally on a specific type of aircraft or engine design.
- Technical Memoranda: These reported on aeronautical research conducted somewhere other than at NACA, and often were translations of technical articles published in a foreign language.
During the existence of NACA, it printed more than 16,000 research reports of one type or another. Technical Reports were publicly available, readily accessible to anyone with a need to know the information. They were distributed to a huge mailing list that included laboratories, libraries, factories and military installations around the world. They became famous for their thoroughness and accuracy, and served as the rock upon which NACA built its reputation as one of the best aeronautical research institutions in the world.
Beginning in the 1930s, because of pressure to cut the federal budget, NACA also established a table of fees for charging private companies, usually those involved in the aeronautical industry, when it pursued research problems they suggested. In this scenario the requestor paid all costs of research. In return, NACA agreed to give the requestor the results of the research, but also retained the right to release findings it deemed in the national interest. This approach had two negative effects:
- It allowed larger aircraft firms with money to spend on these problems an opportunity to squeeze out weaker firms who could not compete with cutting-edge technology.
- It dissuaded some industry leaders from asking NACA to work on pressing aeronautical problems because of both lack of money and a fear that their investment in the research would be lost when the findings were distributed to the world.
During the course of NACA’s history between 1915 and 1958 it did very little “project” work of its own, at least as this term has come to be known at NASA. NACA’s emphasis was on research for the use of outside entities. The principal means of transferring this research knowledge was through a series of reports that could be used as the clients saw fit. An important secondary means of transferring this information was through the annual conferences sponsored by NACA after 1926.
Two concluding questions must be asked: Is this the model NASA should pursue going forward when it comes to research and development of space technologies? Assuming some changes in NASA’s approach are appropriate, how might the NACA model of technology transfer be altered for a new age in the 21st century?
Roger D. Launius is a senior curator in the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington.