NASA Turns 60

The official logo for NASA turning 60.

As of today, the 1st of October 2018, NASA has turned 60. It was created as a new agency based on its precursor NACA, started in 1915. The cold war between the USA and the Soviet Union created a space race the late 1950’s. From 1946, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was experimenting with rocket planes. One of the famous ones was the Bell X-1 that took Chuck Yeager past the speed of sound (and was the first to do so). They were also the team behind the running of the X-15 rocket plane that Neil Armstrong famously flew. In the early 1950’s there was a call to look into launching artificial satellites towards the end of the decade, mainly driven by the International Geophysical Year which was 1957/58.

The x-15 rocket plane, currently the fastest plane ever, it reached mach 7, and was developed by NACA. Credit: NASA.

An effort towards this by the USA started with Project Vanguard, led by the 
United States Naval Research Laboratory, which ended in catastrophic failure. This was the perceived state of the US side of the space race at the time. On October 4th, 1957 Sputnik 1 launched and instantly grabbed the attention of the United States public. The perceived threat to national security was known as the Sputnik crisis, and US congress urged immediate action. President Dwight D. Eisenhower with his advisers worked on immediate measures to catch up. It eventually led to an agreement to create a new federal agency based on the activity of NACA. The agency would conduct all non-military activity in space. The Advanced Research Projects Agency was also created to develop space technology for the military applications.

The failed Project Vanguard by the Naval Research Laboratory, it was meant to be the first US satellite in space but ended in disaster.

Between 1957 and 1958 NACA began studying what a new non-military space agency would be, and what it would do. On January 12th, 1958 NACA convened a “special committee on space technology” headed by Guyford Stever (director of the national science foundation). The committee had consultation from the Army Ballistic Missile Agency headed by the famous Werner Von Braun, the soon to be architect of the Saturn V. On January 14th 1958, the NACA director Hugh Dryden published “A National Research Program for Space Technology” that stated:

It is of great urgency and importance to our country both from consideration of our prestige as a nation as well as military necessity that this challenge [Sputnik] be met by an energetic program of research and development for the conquest of space… It is accordingly proposed that the scientific research be the responsibility of a national civilian agency… NACA is capable, by rapid extension and expansion of its effort, of providing leadership in space technology

On January 31st 1958, Explorer 1 was launched. Officially names Satellite 1958 Alpha, it was the first satellite of the United States. Talked about in a recent post, the payload consisted of the Iowa Cosmic Ray Instrument without a tape recorder (there was not enough time to install it). A big turning point in the US side of the space race, it gave civilian space activities a chance in the spotlight to allow for more funding.

The logo for Explorer 1, the first US satellite in space. It was the first satellite to pick up the Van Allen belts. Credit: NASA/JPL.

In April 1958, Eisenhower delivered to the U.S. Congress an address to support the formation of a civilian space agency. He then submitted a bill to create the “National Aeronautical and Space Agency”. Somewhat reworked the bill was passed as the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 on July 16th. Two days later Von Braun’s Working group submitted a report criticizing the duplication of efforts between departments on space related programs in the US government. On July 29th the bill was signed by Eisenhower and NASA was formed. It began operations on October 1st 1958. NASA absorbed NACA in its entirety, including its 8,000 employees, annual budget of $100 million, and the research labs under its jurisdiction. The three main labs were Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory. It also inherited two small test facilities. Elements of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency were transferred to NASA, including Werner Von Brauns Working Group. Elements of the Naval Research Laboratory that failed to launch project Vanguard were also transferred to NASA. In December of that year NASA gained control Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). It is important to remember that NASA was based upon the success of the rocket scientist Rober Goddard, who inspired Werner Von Braun and other German Rocket scientists brought over by project paperclip. There was also huge influences from the research conducted by ARPA and US Air Force research programs.

Thank You for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space or electronics, or follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.

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When Planes Need an Eye Test

Naval Outlying Field Webster
The photo resolution marker at Naval Outlying Field Webster, From Google Maps

A few years ago, The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) reported on the dozens of Photo calibration targets found in the USA. They are odd looking two dimensional targets with lots of lines on the of various sizes, used as part of the development of aerial photography. Mostly built in the 1950’s and 60’s as part of the US effort of the cold war.

Shaw Air Force Base
The photo resolution marker at Shaw Air Force Base. From Google Maps

At this point, just after the second world war, there was a huge push to get better information about the enemy. The military needed better aerial recconasance. This very problem lead to the development of the U-2 and the SR-71. As part of this, there needed to be methods of testing these planes with the big camera systems attached to them. This was before the development of digital photography, so resolution is much more difficult to test.

The USAF test target
The 1951 USAF test target from wikipedia, they can still be bought.
Fort Huachuca
The photo resolution marker at Fort Huachuca. From Google Maps

This is where the photo resolution markers came in. Much like an optometrist uses an eye chart, military aerial cameras used these giant markers. Defined in milspec MIL-STD-150A, they are generally 78ft x 53ft concrete or asphalt rectangles, with heavy black and white paint. The bars on it are sometimes called a tri-bar array, but they can come in all forms, such as white circles, squares, and checkered patterns.

Beaufort Marine Corps Base
The photo resolution marker at Beaufort Marine Corps Base. From Google Maps

The largest concentration of resolution targets is in the Mojave desert, around Edwards Air Force Base. This is the place most new planes were tested during this time, with the U-S, SR-71 and X-15 being just some of the planes tested there. There are a set of 15 targets over 20 miles, known as photo resolution road. There are also plenty of other resolution targets at aerial reconnaissance bases across the US, such as Travis AFB, Beaufort Marine Corps Base and Shaw Air Force Base.

Elgin Air Force Base
The photo resolution marker at Elgin Air Force Base. From Google Maps