“Learning To Fly”: Gorgeous Vintage Photos Of Early NASA Facilities

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 photographs of vintage NASA (and NASA predecessor NACA) facilities.

Sperry M-1 Messenger

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 entrance cone of the tunnel is Elton W. Miller, Max M. Munk’s successor as chief of aerodynamics. Miller was one of the designers of the Propeller Research Tunnel.

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Weick W-1

Fred Weick designed the W-1 with tricycle landing gear. It is shown here in the Full Scale Tunnel. Located at NACA Headquarters at Langley.

M2-F1 in Tow

On August 16, 1963, Milt Thompson piloted the M2-F1’s first air-tow flight. Although the photo above shows a different flight, it provides context for the concept.

The M2-F1 lifting body is seen here being towed behind a C-47 at the Flight Research Center (now the Armstrong Flight Research Center), Edwards, California. The wingless, lifting body aircraft design was initially conceived as a means of landing an aircraft horizontally after atmospheric re-entry. The absence of wings would make the extreme heat of re-entry less damaging to the vehicle. The first C-47 towed flight was on August 16, 1963.


Apollo Block II Saturn I aerodynamic integrity wind tunnel test preparation.

Instrumentation in A-29

Recording high altitude flight data in a flying laboratory at the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, Cleveland, Ohio, now known as the John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field. The aircraft is a modified B-29 bomber manufactured by Boeing, and backbone of the World War II effort. It was used to determine what conditions cause ice to form on wings and aircraft surfaces.

Cray Y 190A Supercomputer

The Cray Y 190A Supercomputer at the NASA Ames Research Center, Mountain View, California.

Glenn at the Cape

Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. in his silver Mercury spacesuit during pre- flight training activities at Cape Canaveral. On February 20, 1962 Glenn lifted off into space aboard his Mercury Atlas (MA-6) rocket and became the first American to orbit the Earth. After orbiting the Earth 3 times, Friendship 7 landed in the Atlantic Ocean 4 hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds later, just East of Grand Turk Island in the Bahamas. Glenn and his capsule were recovered by the Navy Destroyer Noa, 21 minutes after splashdown.

Astronaut Susan J. Helms

A portrait of Astronaut Susan J. Helms taken on June 30th, 1994. Helms is a veteran of five spaceflights, has logged 5,064 hours in space, and co-holds the world record for the longest spacewalk at 8 hours and 56 minutes.

Friendship 7

At 9:47 am EST, John Glenn launched from Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 14 to become the first American to orbit the Earth. In this image, Glenn enters his Friendship 7 capsule with assistance from technicians to begin his historic flight. 1962.

Vought XF-8U Crusader

A technician prepares dynamic models of the Bell X-1E and the Vought XF-8U Crusader for wind tunnel testing in 1957. The Crusader was then the Navy’s fastest aircraft (maximum speed Mach 1.75 at 35,000 feet).

16 Foot High Speed Wind Tunnel

16-foot High Speed Wind Tunnel at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory downstream view through cooling tower section.

Apollo 16 Astronauts Train for Lunar Landing Mission

Apollo 16 astronauts (left to right), Lunar Module Pilot Charles M. Duke, Commander John W. Young, and Command Module Pilot Thomas K. Mattingly II during a training exercise in preparation for the Lunar Landing Mission.

Project Mercury: AWT Gimbaling Rig Showing Motion

This device is formally known as the MASTIF or Multiple Axis Space Test Inertia Facility and was located in the Altitude Wind Tunnel at the Lewis Research Center. Lewis is now known as the John H. Glenn Research Center. MASTIF was designed to train astronauts to regain control of a tumbling spacecraft but was only used for a couple of years and was dismantled in the early 1960s.

Sam the Monkey After His Ride in the Little Joe 2 Spacecraft

Sam, the Rhesus monkey, after his ride in the Little Joe-2 (LJ-2) spacecraft. A U.S. Navy destroyer safely recovered Sam after he experienced three minutes of weightlessness during the flight. Animals were often used during test flights for Project Mercury to help determine the effects of spaceflight and weightlessness on humans. LJ-2 was one in a series of flights that led up to the human orbital flights of NASA’s Project Mercury program. The Little Joe rocket booster was developed as a cheaper, smaller, and more functional alternative to the Redstone rockets. Little Joe could be produced at one-fifth the cost of Redstone rockets and still have enough power to carry a capsule payload. Seven unmanned Little Joe rockets were launched from Wallops Island, Virginia from August 1959 to April 1961.

Lunar Landing Research Vehicle

Lunar Landing Research Vehicle outside NASA Langley hangar. The LLRV was later shipped to Houston to train astronauts for landing the Lunar Module

Closed Loop Breathing System

A pilot restraint and Closed Loop Breathing System. 1962.

Zimmerman V-173

View of the Vought-Sikorsky V-173 airplane mounted in the Full Scale Wind Tunnel. Shows the prototype “Zimmer Skimmer” or “Flying Pancake” on which the XF5U was based.

Lockheed C-141 Model in TDT

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.

X-15 Crash at Mud Lake, Nevada

An engine failure forced Jack McKay, a NASA research pilot, to make an emergency landing at Mud Lake, Nevada, in the second X-15. The aircraft’s landing gear collapsed and the X-15 flipped over on its back. McKay was promptly rescued by an Air Force medical team standing by near the launch site, and eventually recovered to fly the X-15 again. But his injuries, more serious than at first thought, eventually forced his retirement from NASA. The aircraft was sent back to the manufacturer, where it underwent extensive repairs and modifications. It returned to Edwards in February 1964 as the X-15A-2, with a longer fuselage (52 ft 5 in) and external fuel tanks.The basic X-15 was a rocket-powered aircraft 50 ft long with a wingspan of 22 ft. It was a missile-shaped vehicle with an unusual wedge-shaped vertical tail, thin stubby wings, and unique side fairings that extended along the side of the fuselage.

Construction of Hangar One at NAS Sunnyvale circa 1931 - 1934

Construction of Hangar One at NAS Sunnyvale circa 1931 – 1934

Paul King and the Vought VE-7

Clad in a fur lined leather flying suit with oxygen facepiece, NACA test pilot Paul King prepares to take to the air in a Vought VE-7. 1925.

Olympic Game Communication Satellite Birds

The replicas of the covey (flock) of synchronous communication satellites that were used to televise the 19th Olympic Games from Mexico City to audiences in Europe and Japan. The satellites are shown at Hughes Aircraft Company, Culver City, California where they were built for NASA and Comsat Corporation. In the center is a full- scale model of the Intelsat II satellite, which was used by Comsat to send color TV direct to Japan via a Hughes ground station installed near San Jose, California. Left of Intelsat is the NASA’s ATS-3 (Application Technology Satellites), which transmitted the picture portion of the Olympics to Europe and the Early Bird (right) transmitted the voice commentary of the European telecast in a dozen languages. These communication satellites went into orbit over the Atlantic in April 1965.

Dr. Goddard Transports Rocket

Dr. Robert H. Goddard tows his rocket to the launching tower behind a Model A Ford truck, 15 miles northwest of Roswell, New Mexico. 1930- 1932. Dr. Goddard has been recognized as the “Father of American Rocketry” and as one of three pioneers in the theoretical exploration of space. Robert Hutchings Goddard was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on October 5, 1882.

Apollo 17

The prime crew for the Apollo 17 lunar landing mission are: Commander, Eugene A. Cernan (seated), Command Module pilot Ronald E. Evans (standing on right), and Lunar Module pilot, Harrison H. Schmitt. They are photographed with a Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) trainer. Cernan and Schmitt will use an LRV during their exploration of the Taurus-Littrow landing site. The Apollo 17 Saturn V Moon rocket is in the background. This picture was taken at Pad A, Launch Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida, The Apollo 17 emblem is in the photo insert at upper left. The insignia, designed by artist Robert T. McCall in collaboration with the crewmen, is dominated by the image of Apollo, the Greek sun god. Apollo 17 launched on December 7, 1972.

Analog Computing Machine in Fuel Systems Building

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. 1949.

P-51 Mustang in Full Scale Tunnel

A P-51 Mustang in the Full Scale Tunnel at Langley Aeronautical Laboratory.. 1943.

Interior View of Drafting Room in ERB

Interior view of Drafting Room in Engine Research Building showing men at work at the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory. This building was considered the research heart of NACA Lewis. It was built by the Sam W. Emerson Company and was completed in 1942. It is a multipurpose flexible space covering more than 4.25 acres and can be changed according to research priorities. The Aircraft Engine Research Center, Cleveland Ohio, is now known as the John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field.

The First Space Shuttle External Tank

The first Space Shuttle External Tank (ET), the Main Propulsion Test Article (MPTA), rolls off the assembly line on September 9, 1977 at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Louisiana. The MPTA was then transported to the National Space Technology Laboratories (currently called Stennis Space Center) in southern Mississippi where it was used in the static test firing of the Shuttle’s cluster of three main engines. Marshall Space Flight Center was responsible for developing the External Tank. External Tank contains two tanks, one for liquid hydrogen and one for liquid oxygen, and a plumbing system that supplies propellant to the Main Engines of the Space Shuttle Orbiter.

E17 Drag Research Model

Technician Durwood Dereng prepares to pull the external-power plug from an E17 drag-research model at Wallops, September 8, 1950.

Construction Progress of the S-IC Test Stand

At its founding, the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) inherited the Army’s Jupiter and Redstone test stands, but much larger facilities were needed for the giant stages of the Saturn V. From 1960 to 1964, the existing stands were remodeled and a sizable new test area was developed. The new comprehensive test complex for propulsion and structural dynamics was unique. 1963.

Christa McAuliffe in Training

Christa McAuliffe received a preview of microgravity during a special flight aboard NASA’s KC-135 “zero gravity” aircraft in early 1986. A special parabolic pattern flown by the aircraft provides shore periods of weightlessness. McAuliffe was selected for the Teacher in Space Project and launched aboard STS 51-L (Challenger) on January 28, 1986. She and the rest of her crewmates died in the launch accident that day.

NACA Cowling #10

Drag can present a major problem for aircraft and much of Langley Lab’s early research was focused upon reducing aircraft drag. One method was to place a cowling or covering over the engine cylinder heads, much like the hood over the engine of a car. By the end of September 1928, tests of cowling #10 in the Propeller Research Tunnel showed a dramatic reduction in drag. This research won the NACA the first of its many Collier Trophies.

Impact Landing Dynamics Facility Crash Test

By 1972 the Lunar Landing Research Facility was no longer in use for its original purpose. The 400-foot high structure was swiftly modified to allow engineers to study the dynamics of aircraft crashes. The Impact Dynamics Research Facility is used to conduct crash testing of full-scale aircraft under controlled conditions. The aircraft are swung by cables from an A-frame structure that is approximately 400 ft. long and 230 foot high. The impact runway can be modified to simulate other grand crash environments, such as packed dirt, to meet a specific test requirement. In 1972, NASA and the FAA embarked on a cooperative effort to develop technology for improved crashworthiness and passenger survivability in general aviation (GA) aircraft with little or no increase in weight and acceptable cost. Since then, NASA has “crashed” dozens of GA aircraft by using the lunar excursion module (LEM) facility originally built for the Apollo program.

X-36 on Ramp

NASA Dryden Flight Fesearch Center, Edwards California is hosting the X-36 program, as well as providing range support for the flight tests. NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California originated the X- 36 program and is managing the program in a cooperative effort with the McDonnell Douglas Corporation. MDC’s responsibilities include flight preparation and testing, data acquisition and analysis. The X-36 is a small, remotely-piloted jet built by MDC and designed to fly without the traditional tail surfaces common on most aircraft.

Intelsat IV in an anechoic chamber

The picture shows the communication satellite Intelsat IV in an anechoic (sound-absorbing) chamber with two female employees. It stood over 17 feet tall with an average of 6,000 voice grade circuits. Hughes Aircraft Company built the Intelsat IV satellite. Intelsat or the International Telecommunications Satellite was an international organization of 65 nations that was established August 20, 1964 out of the growing demand for channels of communication and greatly expanded the commercial communications network. The Intelsat IV was placed in a synchronous orbit over the Atlantic with the capacity of about 6,000 circuits or 13 television channels.

1997 Dryden Research Aircraft Fleet on Ramp

A collection of NASA’s research aircraft on the ramp at the Dryden Flight Research Center in July 1997: X-31, F-15 ACTIVE, SR-71, F-106, F-16XL Ship #2, X-38, and X-36.

ECHO Horn Antenna

The Horn reflector antenna at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Holmdel, New Jersey was built in 1959 for pioneering work in communication satellites for the NASA ECHO I. The antenna was 50 feet in length and the entire structure weighed about 18 tons. It was comprised of aluminum with a steel base. It was used to detect radio waves that bounced off Project ECHO balloon satellites. The horn was later modified to work with the Telstar Communication Satellite frequencies as a receiver for broadcast signals from the satellite. In 1990 the horn was dedicated to the National Park Service as a National Historic Landmark.

Ames 5 Degrees-of-Motion Simulator

The NASA Ames 5 degrees-of-freedom motion simulator incorporated a centrifuge with a 30 foot spin radius. The simulated cockpit located within the hooded cab at the end of the centrifuge arm was driven by motors as required by the simulation about each of its three axes (pitch, roll, and yaw). The cab was also driven through a limited range of motion along the vertical axis and, of course, was driven by the centrifuge arm along a curved path of fixed radius in the horizontal plane. Thus the motions that could be simulated in the cab were three angular motions, one translational motion, and a curvilinear combination of the remaining two translational motions. The curvilinear motions and associated accelerations were of course, fairly representative of airplane flight. The simulator was placed in operation early in 1961

Differential Analyzer

Differential Analyzer built under the direction of Harold Mergler in the Instrument Research Section. The technician is preparing a data report. This equipment was located at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, LFPL, now John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field, Cleveland Ohio. 1951.

6- x 6-Foot Supersonic Wind Tunnel at Ames

A researcher inspecting a model in the 6- x 6-Foot Supersonic Wind Tunnel’s test section at the NACA Ames Research Center. Note the two circular schlieren windows, and that the vertical blade supporting the sting does not extend to the floor. 1948.

Inflatable Station Concept

Unlike many other early space station concepts, this design actually made it out of the concept phase and into production, though no models were ever flown. This particular station was 30-feet and expandable. It was designed to be taken to outer space in a small package and then inflate in orbit. The station could, in theory, have been big enough for 1 to 2 people to use for a long period of time. A similar 24 foot station was built by the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation for NASA test use. The concept of space inflatables was revived in the 1990s.

HL-10 on Lakebed with B-52 flyby

NASA research pilot Bill Dana takes a moment to watch NASA’s NB-52B cruise overhead after a research flight in the HL-10. On the left, John Reeves can be seen at the cockpit of the lifting body. The HL-10 was one of five lifting body designs flown at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, California, from July 1966 to November 1975 to study and validate the concept of safely maneuvering and landing a low lift-over-drag vehicle designed for reentry from space. 1969.

Swinging Valve for Supersonic Wind Tunnel

24 foot diameter swinging valve at various stages of opening and closing in the 10ft x 10ft Supersonic Wind Tunnel at what is now the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, OH. 1956.

M2-F2 Crash on Rogers Dry Lake

The M2-F2 lifting body aircraft crash landed on Rogers Dry Lakebed at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, California on May 10, 1967.

Engine on Torque Stand

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 force produced by a spinning object – propellers create a lot of it 1944.

IBM Electronic Data Processing Machine

Man and woman shown working with IBM type 704 electronic data processing machine used for making computations for aeronautical research at Langley Research Center. 1957.

19 foot Pressure Wind Tunnel

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. 1950.

Variable Density Tunnel

The Variable Density Tunnel (VDT) on a rail car at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company where it was built. The Tunnel was shipped by barge to the Langley Memorial Laboratory in June 1922. The VDT was designed by Dr. Max Munk and it leap-frogged wind tunnel technology of the time putting Langley Lab and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) at the forefront of aeronautical research in the 1920s.

Bell Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV)

Following the crash of a sister Lunar Landing Training Vehicle at Ellington Field in Houston, Texas, the Bell LLTV (NASA 952) was sent from Houston to Langley for tests in the 30 x 60 Full Scale Tunnel. The LLTV was returned to Houston for further training use a short time later. NASA 952 is now on exhibit at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. 1969.

Space Flower Antenna Application Technology Satellite (ATS)

“Space Flower” was the first of the 9-meter (30-foot) diameter antennas for the Application Technology Satellites (ATS). The ATS program was initiated in 1966 to demonstrate the feasibility and capability of placing a satellite in geostationary (geosynchronous) orbit over a fixed location on the Earth’s surface. The saucer-shaped antenna was built at Lockheed Missiles and Space Co., Sunnyvale, California. Also shown is the mold on which the mesh is sewn to the flexible ribs and later sewn in place. For the ride into space, the antenna ribs and mesh are wrapped around the hub of the antenna. When the antenna and spacecraft arrived in the proper orbit, a signal caused a restraining cable to be cut, and the antenna blossomed like an opening flower.

Alligator at Kennedy Space Center

(October 31, 1969) Harold O’Connor, manager of the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, watches a 10-foot-long alligator inch its way toward a busy highway at the Kennedy Space Center. O’Connor, aided by assistant Jerome Carroll, not shown, guided the large gator to safety in a nearby pond, several miles south of the Vehicle Assembly Building, in background.

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