Chapter 1

NACA ORIGINS (1915-1930)

In 1915, Congressional legislation created an Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. The prefix "National" soon became customary, was officially adopted, and the familiar acronym NACA emerged as a widely recognized term among the aeronautics community in America.

The genesis of what came to be known as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) occurred at a time of accelerating cultural and technological change. Only the year before, Robert Goddard began experiments in rocketry and the Panama Canal opened. Amidst the gathering whirlwind of the First World War, social change and technological transformation persisted. During 1915, the NACA's first year, Albert Einstein postulated his general theory of relativity and Margaret Sanger was jailed as the author of Family Limitation, the first popular book on birth control. Frederick Winslow Taylor, father of "Scientific Management," died, while disciples like Henry Ford were applying his ideas in the process of achieving prodigies of production. Ford produced his one millionth automobile the same year. In 1915, Alexander Graham Bell made the first transcontinental call, from New York to San Francisco, with his trusted colleague, Dr. Thomas A. Watson, on the other end of the line. Motion pictures began to reshape American entertainment habits, and New Orleans jazz began to make its indelible imprint on American music. At Sheepshead Bay, New York, a new speed record for automobiles was set, at 102.6 MPH, a figure that many fliers of the era would have been happy to match.

American flying not only lagged behind automotive progress, but also lagged behind European aviation. This was particularly galling to many aviation enthusiasts in the United States, the home of the Wright brothers. True, Orville and Wilbur Wright benefited from the work of European pioneers like Otto Lilienthal in Germany and Percy Pilcher in Great Britain. In America, the Wrights had corresponded with the well-known engineer and aviation enthusiast, Octave Chanute, and they had knowledge of the work of Samuel P. Langley, aviation pioneer and secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. But the Wrights made the first powered, controlled flight in an airplane on 17 December 1903, on a lonely stretch of beach near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Ironically, this feat was widely ignored or misinterpreted by the American press for many years, until 1908, when Orville made trial flights for the War Department and Wilbur's flights overseas enthralled Europe. Impressed by the Wrights, the Europeans nonetheless had already begun a rapid development of aviation, and their growing record of achievements underscored the lack of organized research in the United States.

Sentiment for some sort of center of aeronautical research had been building for several years. At the inaugural meeting of the American Aeronautical Society, in 1911, some of its members discussed a national laboratory with federal patronage. The Smithsonian Institution seemed a likely prospect, based on its prestige and the legacy of Samuel Pierpont Langley's dusty equipment, resting where it had been abandoned in his lab behind the Smithsonian "castle" on the Mall. But the American Aeronautical Society's dreams were frustrated by continued in-fighting among other organizations which were beginning to see aviation as a promising research frontier, including universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as government agencies like the U.S. Navy and the National Bureau of Standards.

soldiers carrying Wright plane to runway
Pre-World war I aviation technology. Military personnel struggle with a Wright biplane during trials at Fort Myer, Virginia, in 1908.

The difficulties of defining a research facility were compounded by the ambivalent attitude of the American public toward the airplane. While some saw it as a mechanical triumph with a significant future, others saw it as a mechanical fad, and a dangerous one at that. If anything, the antics of the "birdmen" and "aviatrixes" of the era tended to underscore the foolhardiness of aviation and airplanes. Fliers might set a record one month and fatally crash the next. Calbraith P. Rodgers managed to make the first flight from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast in 1911 (19 crashes, innumerable stops, and 49 days), but died in a crash just four months later. Harriet Quimby, the attractive and chic American aviatrix (she flew wearing a specially designed, plum-colored satin tunic), was the first woman to fly across the English Channel in 1912. Returning to America, she died in a crash off the Boston coast within three months.

There were fatalities in Europe as well, but the Europeans also took a different view of aviation as a technological phenomenon. Governments, as well as industrial firms, tended to be more supportive of what might be called "applied research." As early as 1909, the internationally known British physicist, Lord Rayleigh, was appointed head of the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics; in Germany, Ludwig Prandtl and others were beginning the sort of investigations that soon made the University of Gottingen a center of theoretical aerodynamics. Additional programs were soon under way in France and elsewhere on the continent. Similar progress in the United States was still slow in coming. Aware of European activity, Charles D. Walcott, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was able to find funds to dispatch two Americans on a fact-finding tour overseas. Dr. Albert F. Zahm taught physics and experimented in aeronautics at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.; Dr. Jerome C. Hunsaker, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was developing a curriculum in aeronautical engineering at the institute. Their report, issued in 1914, emphasized the galling disparity between European progress and American inertia. The visit also established European contacts that later proved valuable to the NACA.

The outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 helped serve as a catalyst for the creation of an American agency. The use of German dirigibles for long-range bombing of British cities and the rapid evolution of airplanes for reconnaissance and for pursuit underscored the shortcomings of American aviation. Against this background, Charles D. Walcott pushed for legislative action to provide for aeronautical research allowing the United States to match progress overseas. Walcott received support from Progressive leaders in the country, who viewed government agencies for research as consistent with Progressive ideals such as scientific inquiry and technological progress. By the spring of 1915, the drive for an aeronautical research organization finally succeeded.

The enabling legislation for the NACA slipped through almost unnoticed as a rider attached to the Naval Appropriation Bill, on 3 March 1915. It was a traditional example of American political compromise.

As before, the move had been prompted by the Smithsonian. The legislation did not call for a national laboratory, since President Wilson apparently felt that such a move, taken during wartime conditions in Europe, might compromise America's formal commitment to strict nonintervention and neutrality. Although supported by the Smithsonian, the proposal emphasized a collective responsibility through a committee that would coordinate work already under way. The committee was an unpaid panel of 12 people, including two members from the War Department, two from the Navy Department, one each from the Smithsonian, the Weather Bureau, and the Bureau of Standards, and five more members acquainted with aeronautics. Despite concerns about appearing neutral, the proposal was tacked on as a rider to the naval appropriation bill as a ploy to clear the way for quick endorsement.

For fiscal 1915, the fledgling organization received a budget of $5000, an annual appropriation that remained constant for the next five years. This was not much even by standards of that time, but it must be remembered that this was an advisory committee only, "to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight, with a view to their practical solutions." Once the NACA isolated a problem, its study and solution was generally done by a government agency or university laboratory, often on an ad hoc basis within limited funding. The main committee of 12 members met semiannually in Washington; an Executive Committee of seven members, characteristically chosen from the main committee living in the Washington area, supervised the NACA's activities and kept track of aeronautical problems to be considered for action. It was a clubby arrangement, but it seemed to work.

In a wartime environment, the NACA was soon busy. It evaluated aeronautical queries from the Army and conducted experiments at the Navy yard; the Bureau of Standards ran engine tests; Stanford University ran propeller tests. But the NACA's role as mediator in the rancorous and complex dispute between Glenn Curtiss and the Wright-Martin Company represented its greatest wartime success. The controversy involved the technique for lateral control of aircraft in flight. Once settled, the resultant cross-licensing agreement consolidated patent rights and cleared the way for volume production of aircraft during the war as well as during the postwar era.

The authors of the NACA's charter had written it to leave open the possibility of an independent laboratory. Although several facilities for military research continued to function, the NACA pointed out in its first Annual Report for 1915 that civil aviation research would be in order when the Great War ended. And so, even before the war's conclusion, plans were afoot to acquire a laboratory. The best option seemed to be collaboration in the development of a new U.S. Army airfield, across the river from Norfolk, Virginia. The military facility was named after Samuel Pierpont Langley, former secretary of the Smithsonian; the NACA facility was named the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, soon shortened to the familiar, cryptic "Langley."

Construction of the airfield got underway in 1917, hampered by the confusion following America's declaration of war on Germany and by the wet weather and marshy terrain of the Virginia tidewater region. One of the workers was an aspiring young writer named Thomas Wolfe. In his autobiograhical novel, Look Homeward Angel (1929), Wolfe's main character found a job at Langley as a horse-mounted construction supervisor paid $80 per month. He directed gangs striving to create a level airfield, pushing the earth "and filling interminably, ceaselessly, like the weary and fruitless labor of a nightmare, the marshy earth-craters, which drank their shovelled toil without end."

But eventually it did end; formal dedication took place on 11 June 1920. Although the Army, under wartime pressures, had already relocated its own research center to McCook Field, near Dayton, Ohio, Langley Field remained a large base, and military influence remained strong. The inaugural ceremonies included various aerial exhibitions and a fly-over of a large formation of planes led by the dashing Brigadier General William "Billy" Mitchell. Visitors found that the NACA's corner of Langley Field was comparatively modest: an atmospheric wind tunnel, a dynamometer lab, an administration building, and a small warehouse. There was a staff of 11 people--plenty of room to grow.

The Postwar Era

The management of the NACA and Langley, with a small staff for so many years, remained personal, straightforward, and more or less informal. In Washington, a full-time executive secretary was named: John F. Victory, the NACA's first employee, hired in 1915. George W. Lewis, hired in 1919, became director of research, but remained in Washington, where he could palaver with politicians and joust with other bureaucrats. He spent long productive hours in the corridors of the Army-Navy Club and the Cosmos Club. Meanwhile, the close-knit staff down at Langley operated on a more democratic basis. In the lunchroom, junior staff, senior staff, and technicians dined together, where a free exchange of views continued over coffee and dessert. For years, Langley managed to attract the brightest young aeronautical engineers in the country, because they knew that their training would continue to expand by close and comradely contact with many senior NACA engineers on the cutting edge of research.

Engineers came to Langley from all over the country. Early employees often had degrees in civil or mechanical engineering, since so few universities offered a degree in aeronautical engineering alone. By the end of the 1920s, this had begun to change. From a handful of prewar courses dealing with aeronautical engineering, universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology evolved a plan of professional course work leading to both undergraduate and graduate degrees in the subject. The Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics provided money for similar programs at several other schools. In 1929, a survey by an aviation magazine reported that 1400 aeroengineering students were enrolled in more than a dozen schools across the United States. The California Institute of Technology became a major beneficiary of the Guggenheim Fund's foresight. Although America possessed the facilities to train engineers and the NACA offered superb facilities for practical research, the country lacked a nerve center for advanced studies in theoretical aerodynamics. Germany led the world in this respect until the Guggenheim Fund lured the brillant young scientist Theodore von Karman to the United States. Von Karman accepted a Caltech offer in 1929 and occupied his new post the following year. Within the decade, not only did Caltech's research projects enrich the field of aerodynamic theory, its graduates began to dominate the discipline in colleges and universities across the nation. The Guggenheim Fund's largesse was a tremendous stimulus to aeronautical engineering and research, as it was to the dozens of other aeronautical projects that it supported. Between 1926 and 1930, this personal philanthropy disbursed $3 million for a variety of fundamental research and experimental programs, including flight safety and instrument flying, that profoundly influenced the growth of American aviation.

Although the Langley organization became more formalized over time, there was maximum opportunity for individual initiative. The agency followed a regular procedure for instituting a "Research Authorization," but promising ideas could be pursued without formal approval. The NACA hierarchy in Washington and at Langley accepted this sort of "bootlegged" work as long as it was not too exotic, because it was often as productive as formal programs and kept the Langley staff moving out in front of the conventional frontier. The system also worked because the Langley staff remained small: about 100 in 1925. Creativity had its place, but outlandish projects were quickly spotted.

The sources for formal "Research Authorizations" were many and varied, often reflected by the catholic makeup of the NACA's main committee, drawing as it did from both military services, other government agencies, universities, and individuals from the aviation community. Ideas also came from Lewis's forays into Washington corridors of influence as well as from sources overseas. Edward Pearson Warner, serving as Langley's chief physicist, was packed off to Europe in 1920 to get a sense of postwar trends among major overseas countries; later the NACA set up a permanent observation post in Paris, where John J. Ide kept an eye on European activities up to World War II.

photo of early wind tunnel
Langly Laboratory's first wind tunnel, finished in 1920.

But research depended on facilities. At Langley, NACA technicians turned their attention to a new wind tunnel. It was not large, designed to have a test section of about five feet in diameter, but it could be configured to produce speeds of 120 MPH in the test section, making it one of the best facilities in the world. Still, there were inherent drawbacks. With no firsthand experience, NACA planners built a conventional, open circuit tunnel based on a design proven at the British National Physical Laboratory. At the University of Gottingen in Germany the famous physicist Ludwig Prandtl and his staff had already built a closed circuit, return-flow tunnel in 1908. Among other things, the closed circuit design required less power, boasted a more uniform airflow, and permitted pressurization as well as humidity control.

The NACA engineers at Langley knew how to scale up data from the small models tested in their sea level, open circuit tunnels, but they soon realized that their estimates were often wide of the mark. For significant research, the NACA experimenters needed facilities like the tunnels in Gottingen. They also needed someone with experience in the design and operation of these more exotic tunnels. Both requirements were met in the person of Max Munk.

Munk had been one of Prandtl's brightest lights at Gottingen. During World War I, many of Munk's experiments in Germany were instantaneously tagged as military secrets (though they usually appeared in England, completely translated, within days of his completing them). After the war, Prandtl contacted his prewar acquaintance, Jerome Hunsaker, with the news that Munk wanted to settle in America. For Munk to enter the United States in 1920, President Woodrow Wilson had to sign two special orders: one to get him into America so soon after the war, and one permitting him to hold a government job. In the spring of 1921, construction of a pressurized, or variable density tunnel, began at Langley. The goal was to keep using models in the tunnel, but conduct the tests in a sealed, airtight chamber where the air would be compressed "to the same extent as the model being tested." In other words, if a one-twentieth scale model was being tested in the variable density tunnel, then researchers would increase the density of air in the tunnels to a level of 20 atmospheres. Results could be expressed in a numerical scale known as the Reynolds number. The tunnel began operations in 1922 and proved highly successful in the theory of airfoils. As one Langley historian wrote, "Langley's VDT (variable density tunnel) had established itself as the primary source for aerodynamic data at high Reynolds numbers in the United States, if not in the world." Munk's tenure at the NACA was a stormy one. He was brilliant, erratic, and an autocrat. After many confrontations with various bureaucrats and Langley engineers, Munk resigned from the NACA in 1929. But his style of imaginative research and sophisticated wind tunnel experimentation was a significant legacy to the young agency.

wid tunnel operators observing  experiment
A NACA team conducts research using the variable density tunnel in 1929.

The variable density tunnel, using scale models, represented only one avenue of aeronautical investigation. In parallel, the NACA ran a program of full scale flight tests that also yielded early dividends. In the process, the NACA helped establish a body of requisite guidelines and procedures for flight testing. One problem involved instrumentation--proper equipment for acquiring accurate data on full scale aircraft during actual flight that could correlate with data obtained in wind tunnels. In one early project, wind tunnel data for a model of the Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" was compared to information derived from an instrumented Jenny put through a series of flight tests to investigate lift and drag. By comparing data, the reliability of wind tunnel information could be judged more rigorously. The tests of the 100 MPH JN-4 represented the start of carefully planned and instrumented experimental flights that became a hallmark of the NACA and NASA from subsonic through supersonic flight. The early JN-4 flights also uncovered another aspect of flight testing to be addressed--the need for specially trained test pilots. Langley also pioneered in the concept of training fliers as test pilot-engineers.

By 1922, several different kinds of aircraft were under test at Langley. Three workhorse planes were Curtiss JN-4H Jennies, used for a series of takeoff and landing and performance measurements that represented an important new set of design parameters. Military investigations also began during these early years, when the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics came to the NACA for a comparative study of airplanes in terms of stability, controllability, and maneuverability. Along with a Vought VE-7 from the Navy, Langley pilots obtained a Thomas-Morse MB-3 from the Army, and two foreign models: a British SE-5A (one of the Royal Air Force's principal fighters of World War I) and a German Fokker D-VII (the main source of references to the "Fokker scourge" during the war). Evaluating front-line aircraft from foreign as well as American air forces inaugurated a practice that persisted through the NASA era as well. Other investigations during the mid-1920s involved further work for the Navy, to ascertain accurate data on stall, takeoff, and landing speeds of a specific aircraft. The Army turned up with a similar request for studies of these and other qualities for most of the aircraft in the Air Service inventory at that time.

The progressive experience in flight test work, including a variety of instrumentation required to register the data, contributed to studies of pressure distribution along wing surfaces, a major effort during the 1920s. Beginning with measurements during steady flight, test pilots and instrumentation experts devised techniques to study pressure distribution during accelerated flight and in maneuvers, accumulating invaluable design data where none had existed before. Steady improvement in instrumentation permitted pressure distribution surveys to be wound up in one day, rather than making a prolonged series of flights lasting as long as two months. By 1925, Langley had 19 aircraft dedicated to a variety of test operations. Ground testing had expanded to include a new engine research laboratory in which engineers had begun work on supercharging of engines for high altitude bombers, as well as a means of boosting power for interceptors in order to give them a high rate of climb--the sort of investigative work that paid dividends later in World War II.

The Tunnels Pay Off

In the meantime, the variable density tunnel began to pay further dividends in the form of airfoil research. During the late 1920s and into the 1930s, the NACA developed a series of thoroughly tested airfoils and devised a numerical designation for each airfoil--a four digit number that represented the airfoil section's critical geometric properties. By 1929, Langley had developed this system to the point where the numbering system was complemented by an airfoil cross-section, and the complete catalog of 78 airfoils appeared in the NACA's annual report for 1933. Engineers could quickly see the peculiarities of each airfoil shape, and the numerical designator ("NACA 2415," for instance) specified camber lines, maximum thickness, and special nose features. These figures and shapes transmitted the sort of information to engineers that allowed them to select specific airfoils for desired performance characteristics of specific aircraft.

During the late 1920s, the NACA also announced a major innovation that resulted in the agency's first Robert J. Collier Trophy, presented annually by the National Aeronautic Association for the year's most outstanding contribution to American aviation. In 1929, the Collier trophy went to the NACA for the design of a low-drag cowling.

Most American planes of the postwar decade mounted air-cooled radial engines, with the cylinders exposed to the air stream to maximize cooling. But the exposed cylinders also caused high drag. Because of this, the U.S. Army had adopted several aircraft with liquid-cooled engines, in which the cylinders were arranged in a line parallel to the crankshaft. This reduced the frontal area of the aircraft and also allowed an aerodynamically contoured covering, or nacelle, over the nose of the plane. But the liquid-cooled designs carried weight penalties in terms of the myriad cooling chambers around the cylinders, gallons of coolant, pumps, and radiator. The U.S. Navy decided not to use such a design because the added maintenance requirements cut into the limited space aboard aircraft carriers. Moreover, the jarring contact of airplanes with carrier decks created all sorts of cracked joints and leaks in liquid-cooled engines. Air-cooled radial engines simplified this issue, although their inherent drag meant reduced performance. In 1926, the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics approached the NACA to see if a circular cowling could be devised in such a way as to reduce the drag of exposed cylinders without creating too much of a cooling problem.

While significant work on cowled radial engines proceeded elsewhere, particularly in Great Britain, investigations at Langley soon provided a breakthrough. American aerodynamicists at this time had the advantage of a new propeller research tunnel completed at Langley in 1927. With a diameter of 20 feet, it was possible to run tests on a full-sized airplane. Following hundreds of tests, a NACA technical note by Fred E. Weick in November 1928 announced convincing results. At the same time, Langley acquired a Curtiss Hawk AT-5A biplane fighter from the Air Service and fitted a cowling around its blunt radial engine. The results were exhilarating. With little additional weight, the Hawk's speed jumped from 118 to 137 MPH, an increase of 16 percent. The virtues of the NACA cowling received

photo of a man standing in the opening of the propeller research tunnel
A Sperry Messenger mounted for testing in Langley's propeller research tunnel in 1927.

public acclaim the next year, when Frank Hawks, a highly publicized stunt flier and air racer, added the NACA cowling to a Lockheed Air Express monoplane and racked up a new Los Angeles/New York nonstop record of 18 hours and 13 minutes. The cowling had raised the plane's speed from 157 to 177 MPH. After the flight, Lockheed Aircraft sent a telegram to the NACA committee: "Record impossible without new cowling. All credit due NACA for painstaking and accurate research." By using the cowling, the NACA estimated savings to the industry of over $5 million--more than all the money appropriated for NACA from its inception through 1928.

ground view of a Curtiss Hawk Bi Plane
The NACA cowling, as fitted on a Curtiss Hawk, a standard U.S. Army combat plane.

After 15 years, the sophistication of the NACA's research had dramatically changed. And so had the sophistication of aviation. After a fitful start in 1918, the U.S. government's airmail service had forged day-and-night transcontinental routes across America by 1924. The service saved as much as two days in delivering coast-to-coast mail, accelerating the tempo of a business civilization and saving millions of dollars. In 1925, the government began to contract for service with privately owned companies, a change that marked the beginning of the airline industry. By the end of the decade, the private companies were beginning to fly passengers as well as mail, and Pan American Airways had launched international services between Florida and Cuba, as well as between Texas and Central America. Following the Air Commerce Act of 1926, lighted airways were improved, radio communications progressed, and guidelines were established for pilot proficiency as well as aircraft design and construction. By the time Charles Lindbergh made his solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927, an aeronautical infrastructure was already in place. The "Lindbergh Boom" that followed his striking achievement could not have been sustained without the important progress of the previous years.

The NACA helped spur much of this development through its refinement of wing design and investigations of various aerodynamic phenomena. The agency also benefited from overall aviation progress during this era, sharing the increased aviation budgets represented by funds for civil programs under the Air Commerce Act and for the expansion of U.S. Army and U.S. Navy aviation. The Army Air Service was granted more autonomy in 1926, when it became the Air Corps. During the 1920s, the Army's air arm began to develop a doctrine, standardize its training, and pursue advanced research, often in cooperation with the NACA. In the development of equipment, the Air Service undertook projects for modern fighters and strategic bombers to come. The U.S. Navy experienced similar organizational changes and began the construction and operational evaluation of aircraft carriers, like the Langley, Lexington, and Saratoga.

Collectively, the progress of civilian aviation, military aviation, and aeronautical research set the stage for the aeronautical revolution that began in the 1930s. The design characteristics of the 1920s--fabric covered biplanes with radial engines--gave way to truly sophisticated airplanes of the 1930s with streamlined shapes, metal construction, retractable landing gear, and high performance. The national economy may have sagged during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but the aviation industry reached new levels of excellence.

Early Rocketry

There were some areas of flight technology, such as rocketry, in which the NACA did not become involved. Nevertheless, when the NACA was transformed into NASA in 1958, the new space agency could reach back into some forty years of American and European writing and research on rocketry and the possibilities of space flight. During the 1920s, the subject of space flight more often seemed to be the province of cranks and science fiction writers spinning wildly improbable tales. But visionary researchers in the United States, as well as Great Britain, Germany, Russia, and elsewhere were taking the first hesitant steps toward actual space travel. In America, Robert Hutchings Goddard is remembered as one of the foremost pioneers.

After completing a doctorate in physics at Clark University in 1911, Goddard joined its faculty. During his physics lectures, he sometimes startled students by outlining various ways of reaching the Moon. Despite the students' skepticism, Goddard was basing his projections on the very real advances in metallurgy, thermodynamics, navigational theory, and control techniques. Twentieth century technology had begun to make rocketry and space flight feasible. Goddard fabricated a series of test rockets, and in 1920 wrote a classic monograph, A Method of Attaining Extreme Altitudes, published by the Smithsonian. In it, he described how a small rocket could soar from the Earth to the Moon, and detonate a payload of flash powder on impact, so that observers using large telescopes on Earth could verify the rocket's arrival on the lunar surface. Caustic news stories about rocketry and lunacy caused Goddard, a shy individual, to shun publicity during the remainder of his life.

Goddard continued to experiment with liquid propellant rockets, igniting them in a field on his Aunt Effie's farm, where their piercing screeches disturbed the neighbor's livestock. Eventually, on 16 March 1926, one of Goddard's devices lifted off to make the first successful flight of a liquid propellant rocket.

Scientist Robert Goddard pictured with early rocket
Robert H. Goddard, with the first successful liquid-fuel chemical rocket, launched 16 March 1926.

At the time, it was hardly an earthshaking demonstration--a flight of 2.5 seconds that carried the rocket to an altitude of 41 feet. A small, but significant step towards future progress. Continued work caught the attention of Charles Lindbergh, who persuaded the Guggenheim Fund to support Goddard's research. By the 1930s, Goddard set up shop at a desert site near Roswell, New Mexico, where he and a small group of assistants developed liquid propellant rockets of increasing size and complexity. Unfortunately, Goddard's reticence meant that he labored in isolation, and other experimental groups knew little of his activities. "His own penchant for secrecy set him apart from the mainstream," wrote historian Frank Winter. "As a result, Goddard's monumental advances in liquidfuel technology were largely unknown until as late as 1936 when his second Smithsonian report, Liquid Propellant Rocket Development appeared." In the meantime, researchers in Germany began work that eventually had an impact on the American space program.

Rocket enthusiasts in Germany took inspiration from the same science fiction (Jules Verne and others) that had motivated Goddard and took advantage of advances in metallurgy and chemistry. They also took another important step, establishing an organization that facilitated the exchange of information and accelerated the rate of experimentation. In 1927, the Verein fur Raumschiffart (VfR) was founded by Hermann Oberth and others. A year later, the VfR collaborated with producers of a science fiction film on space travel, The Girl in the Moon. The script included the now-famous countdown sequence before ignition and lift-off. For publicity, the VfR hoped to build and launch a small rocket. The rocket project fizzled, but among the design team was an eager 18-year-old student named Wernher von Braun, whose enthusiasm for space flight never waned.

In Russia, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky left a legacy of significant writing in the field of rocketry. Although Tsiolkovsky did not construct any working rockets, his numerous essays and books helped point the way to practical and successful space travel. Tsiolkovsky spent most of his life as an unknown mathematics teacher in the Russian provinces, where he made some pioneering studies in liquid chemical rocket concepts and recommended liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen as the optimum propellants. In the 1920s, Tsiolkovsky analyzed and mathematically formulated the technique of staging vehicles to reach escape velocities from Earth. Rocket societies were organized as early as 1924 in the Soviet Union, but the barriers of distance and politics limited interchange between these groups and their western counterparts. In 1931, the Group for the Study of Reaction Motion, known by its Russian acronym of GIRD, became organized, with primary research centers in Moscow and Leningrad. The activity by GIRD resulted in the Soviet Union's first liquid-fuel rocket launch in 1933. Although GIRD stimulated considerable activity in the Soviet Union, including conferences, periodicals, and hardware development, military influences became increasingly dominant. The devastating purges of the 1930s seem to have decimated the astronautical leadership in the Soviet Union, so that the rapid recovery of Soviet activity in the postwar era was all the more remarkable.

In many ways, astronautics became professionalized, much as aeronautics. The term "astronautics" also became more commonplace. The designation grew out of a dinner meeting in Paris in 1927. A Belgian science fiction author, J. J. Rosny, came up with the word, which was then popularized by the French writer and experimenter, Robert Esnault-Pelterie, whose best-known book, L'Astronautique, appeared in 1930. With a body of literature, evolving technology, active professionals, and an identity, astronautics--like aeronautics--was poised for rapid growth.