NASA Glenn: The Early Years
A Pictorial History

Gallery Overview


from Bob Arrighi, Archivist, NASA Glenn Research Center:

Cleveland, Ohio is home to Glenn Research Center, the third oldest center in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Glenn's current expertise in areas such as propulsion, energy conversion, communications, and materials has its roots in the center's accomplishments in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. The center's erudite staff, strong leadership, and unique test facilities have historically produced breakthroughs in jet engines, icing, high-speed flight, high-energy propellants, rocket combustion, satellite communications, engine efficiency, solar cells, and wind energy.

NASA Glenn began in 1942 as the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The committee was established in 1915 to manage the nation's aviation research. In 1920 the NACA established a laboratory at Langley Field, Virginia to conduct its own research. Langley's wind tunnels produced new airfoil and engine cowl designs that spurred the US aviation industry. As international tensions were rising in Europe during the late 1930s, it became apparent that Germany was producing aircraft that could fly higher and faster than US aircraft. The NACA decided to expand its efforts and created two new research sites - Ames Aeronautic Laboratory in Sunnyvale, California and the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory (AERL) in Cleveland, Ohio.

Construction of the AERL began in January 1941, and the first facilities came online in May 1942. Unlike Langley or Ames, the AERL was dedicated to the improvement of aircraft engines. There was no time to develop new engines or aircraft for World War II, so significant efforts were made to improve existing engines. Superchargers, compressors, turbines, fuels, lubrication, and entire engine systems could by studied in the AERL's new facilities. NACA researchers improved superchargers; developed new fuel mixtures that withstood the extra heat caused by superchargers; and improved methods of engine cooling. In addition, the development of jet engines during the war introduced a whole new realm of issues that began to be addressed.

The laboratory reorganized itself immediately after the end of the war to devote almost all of its resources to improving the emerging jet engine technology. The NACA also added new, more powerful test facilities to address the turbojet and high-speed flight. The laboratory, renamed the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, also began a wide-ranging study of ramjet engines for missile applications. The icing research program had begun during the war, but did not really come to fruition until the mid-1940s. Researchers used the Icing Research Tunnel to study different ice-prevention devices and specially-equipped bomber aircraft to study the formation of ice in clouds. The lab's fuels researchers turned their attention to high-energy propellants that could be used with another new technology, rocket engines.

The Lewis laboratory refocused again in 1949 and expanded its research, particularly in regards to the study of rocket propellants. This led to the determination that the lightweight and highly reactive liquid hydrogen could be safely used as a fuel. The improvement of jet and ramjet engines continued throughout the 1950s, and the icing program continued to make strides. The lab also led a presidentially-mandated effort to reduce fatalities in low-speed aircraft crashes. In the mid-1950s NACA researchers began to study nuclear propulsion for both aircraft and rockets.

The Soviet Union's launch of the Sputnik satellite in October 1957 spurred the nation to more fully pursue rockets and space missions. In October 1958 the Lewis laboratory was enveloped in the new NASA space agency. Lewis again shifted all of its resources to address a new field; this time it was spaceflight. Lewis contributed to NASA's first manned mission, Project Mercury, and expanded its work with liquid hydrogen. Researchers studied hydrogen's combustion, heat transfer, storage, pumping, and behavior in microgravity conditions. This led to the use of liquid hydrogen in Centaur and Saturn upper stage rockets. Lewis' experience with liquid hydrogen led to the transfer of the Centaur program to Cleveland in 1962. Lewis was able to get the vehicle operational in time to carry out its missions to send Surveyor spacecraft to explore the lunar surface prior to the Apollo flights. Under Lewis's management Centaur went on to be the nation's primary space tug.

With its contributions to space program nearly complete, the laboratory pivoted once again in 1966 to tackle new aviation concerns—both military and civil. These new issues included supersonic transport aircraft, noise and pollution reduction, energy efficiency, and vertical and short-takeoff flight. Lewis continued to manage Centaur which was now launching both satellites and interplanetary spacecraft, while the Apollo Program completed a series of moon landings. The nuclear propulsion and power programs continued, and the first space test of an ion thruster was completed.

In the early 1970s Congress was continually reducing NASA's budget while the agency began developing the space shuttle. Lewis, which did not have a large role in the shuttle, suffered significant layoffs and program cancellations. The center began shifting once again to find alternative research areas. This led to a series of new programs to tackle problems on earth - including pollution, renewable energy, energy-efficient engines, and communications. Lewis' expertise in engines and space technology was successfully applied to these new fields while maintaining its leadership in aeronautical research.

Lewis's affairs improved in the 1980s, and the center has gone on to manage a string of large space and aeronautics projects during the ensuing decades. The center, renamed the Glenn Research Center in 1999, maintains expertise in propulsion, energy storage and conversion, materials research, and communications technology. Glenn has received over one hundred R&D 100 Awards, two Robert J. Collier Trophies, and an Emmy for its efforts. The roots of these recognitions lie in the center's first three decades of research.

from the Imaging Technology Center staff, NASA Glenn Research Center:

About the Collection
The official photographic archive at NASA Glenn represents a continuous visual record of activity at the Center for nearly 75 years. In sum, it is an historical record of the laboratories, facilities, research, and people that have, over the years, made up the NASA Center we now know as the Glenn Research Center. The entire image collection is estimated to contain over 500,000 images, with most stored in their original film formats in environmentally stable bunkers at NASA Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio. A number of these images have been viewed infrequently or not at all since their original date of capture. An ongoing effort has been underway, as time and budget allow, to digitize and re-catalog these images. At this time, approximately 15% of the collection has been converted to digital format. A representative sampling of these early images has been selected for inclusion in this interactive program.

About the Photography
The Lewis Photo Lab was established in 1942. The staff was expanded over the next few years as more test facilities became operational. Many of the early Center photographers honed their skills in military service during WWII. In their new roles as NACA photographers, they were tasked to accompany pilots on test flights, use high-speed cameras to capture fleeting events such as combustion tests, and work with technology, such as the Schlieren camera, to capture supersonic aerodynamic phenomena. As NACA and NASA broke new ground to define air and space travel, these photographers "wrote the books" on the tools and techniques required to capture images in world-class research facilities. For instance, in 1955 NACA Lewis photographer Bill Wynne developed a method for inserting a timekeeping device on a 16mm camera that displayed elapsed time in the movie footage to one thousandth of a second. While the demands of scientific research drove technical innovation in image capture, the group also documented construction projects, performed publicity work, created images for reports, and photographed data recording equipment. These diverse work situations, coupled with difficult research demands, sparked the creativity evident in many of the images.

Photographers working primarily with large, field cameras and 8- by 10-inch sheet film created the early images in this collection. When portability was important, 4x5 Speed Graphic and Crown Graphic cameras were used. These cameras became the standard in the early 1960s as color film became more common. Roll film cameras were used starting in the 1970s, but 4x5 Crown Graphic cameras were still the standard for ease in negative handling and storage. More compact 35mm cameras were later used for specific applications requiring a smaller footprint and increased number of shots per roll.

While each new generation of camera and lighting equipment altered the photographers' techniques and the look of the images produced during a given time period, certain image characteristics and an overall aesthetic persist. Strong image sharpness and depth of field are seen, even to this day, in many of the facility research images. Aside from the practical aspect of this technique, wherein all project hardware details are easily identified, the sharpness conveys a highly focused view not typically seen with the human eye. Coupled with high-powered, broad lighting, the images take on an almost formal look that can be striking in and of itself. Additionally, technicians and researchers are often seen posed in these images to demonstrate operations or to provide scale against a massive backdrop of hardware, reinforcing the size and scope of technical achievement.

The Photo Lab's expertise and specialized equipment were key research tools in the early decades of the Center’s existence. The staff conveyed ideas, projects, data, breakthroughs, and even accidents to the research community and general public. What continues to this day is the unique blend of technician, historian, and artist, known as a photographer, opening a window into the fascinating world inside the gates of NASA Glenn Research Center.

The images selected for this program offer an interesting glimpse into the both the early research and culture of our Center. These photos, along with their lengthy text descriptions, provide a setting and context for the current research activities of NASA. They illustrate the long arc of technical achievement that builds on what has been discovered and proven before. We hope you enjoy this collection of images and continue to follow NASA in all its future endeavors.

To learn more about the Center, please visit the NASA Glenn Home Page

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