The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was preceded by 43 years by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). That agency was created in 1915 as an emergency response to World War I, to assist in the coordination of industry, academia and war-related projects. Similar agencies already existed in Great Britain, France, Germany and Russia and these were used as models.
The idea for the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (“National” was added later) began in December of 1912, when President William Howard Taft appointed a National Aerodynamical Laboratory Commission. A month later, however, both houses of Congress rejected the legislation that attempted to create the committee.
The effort was taken up quickly thereafter by the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Charles D. Walcott. His efforts got a bill once again before both houses of Congress. As outlined by Walcott, the committee’s purpose was “to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution, and to determine the problems which should be experimentally attacked and to discuss their solution and their application to practical questions.”
NACA’s enabling legislation and its $5,000 annual budget was slipped through almost invisibly, as a rider to a Naval Appropriation Bill. The Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was finally signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on the last day of the 63rd Congress. None of the 12 members of the committee were budgeted to receive compensation.
It was a very busy time in the United States. The year before, Robert Goddard began his experiments in rocketry and the Panama Canal was opened. 1915 was the year Albert Einstein finished his general theory of relativity and Margaret Sanger, the author of the first popular book on birth control, was thrown in jail. Henry Ford produced his one millionth automobile and Alexander Graham Bell made the first transcontinental telephone call.
The fledgling American aviation industry was behind what was going on in Europe, where a rapid development of aviation was under way. The lack of organized research in the United States was underscored by the growing record of achievements in Europe. The first formal record in the United States of a discussion about organizing aviation development efforts and research was in 1911, at the inaugural meeting of the American Aeronautical Society, where members talked about a federally-backed, national aviation laboratory.
Decades of wars, depression, and scientific inquiry came and went and NACA always had plenty on its plate. The big movement away from the preceding NACA toward the formation of NASA came in 1957. The world’s first artificial satellite, the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1, was now orbiting Earth, Americans were very concerned about being beaten into space, and President Eisenhower went on television to address the situation. Among other things, he announced that the president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology was to be adviser science and technology. He confirmed this conviction in a November 13 speech in Oklahoma City, when he spoke for the first time in public of a civilian space agency.
The idea for a national space program received a push when, on December 6, a Vanguard TV-3 rocket lifted about three feet off its Florida launch pad before giving up, falling back to Earth and exploding. Four months later, Eisenhower was on the podium before a joint session of Congress, calling for a civilian aeronautics and space agency. Lyndon Johnson (Democrat) and Styles Bridges (Republican) introduced the NASA bill to the Senate, and John McCormack introduced the House version. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 passed their respective houses in June, 1957.
With the transfer of five facilities to the new agency called NASA, the agency that preceded it, NACA, disappeared October 1, 1958. Eisenhower immediately issued an executive order transferring appropriations and space projects from other programs to NASA. The agency began business on that day a staff of 8,240 and a $340 million budget.
By Gregory Baskin