The Space Agency You've Never Heard Of

NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, created a rich vein of knowledge ore, a public intellectual resource that could be tapped by the private sector. In effect, the federal agency ran R&D interference for the nascent aviation industry. To show how integral NACA was to the creation of new aircraft, we need look no further than one of the agency’s biggest mistakes. In 1941, as America was frantically seeking to match the Germans’ superior technology, Lockheed encountered a potentially devastating problem with its new P-38 Lightning plane. Manufactured at the outset of the war, the plane’s tail had a tendency to shake violently during high-speed dives of 522 miles per hour. At the same time, the nose would duck, steepening the dive, while the controls locked up. Lockheed engineers attempted to fix the problem, but a pilot was killed during one test. The lead designer, Kelly Johnson, decided that wind-tunnel experiments would be the only practical path to a solution. But the large wind tunnel at Langley operated at a maximum speed of 100 miles an hour; a newer, much smaller tunnel at the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory in California maxed out at 250 mph, less than half the speed Lockheed required. Johnson begged NACA to ramp up the speeds, but the agency’s leadership objected, arguing that the experiments would damage the tunnels. Eventually, the head of Army Air Forces, General Henry Harley “Hap” Arnold, ordered NACA to boost the tunnel speeds. By the time the agency complied, Lockheed had been set back a year of R&D. The experiments worked, however; they showed that the solution lay in dive flaps under the tail. While the story can be seen as one of typical government caution and intransigence, the fact remains that NACA developed the tunnels in the first place, long before the aircraft industry had the technology—or could take the financial risk—to build them. When NACA refused to change the tunnels, Lockheed had nowhere else to go, demonstrating Mazzucato’s point better than any economic theory.

NACA went on to lead development and testing of the first supersonic aircraft. A former NACA engineer working for Bell Aircraft first approached the Army in 1944 with the concept of exceeding Mach One. NACA engineer John Stack led the research, using the vast amount of data that had been developed in the NACA wind tunnels. In 1947 the Bell X-1 plane—originally called the NACA XS-1—became the first to exceed the speed of sound in level flight. Two men won the prestigious Collier Trophy in aviation for the achievement: pilot Chuck Yeager, and John Stack. The lesson here seems perfectly clear: Bell Aircraft, in close collaboration with America’s aeronautics agency, mined the public knowledge ore created in NACA’s wind tunnels.

In 1957, with the Russians’ launch of Sputnik, Americans had every right to a sense of déjà vu. Just as the Europeans seemed to take the lead in heavier-than-air flight at the outset of World War I, now the Cold War saw our enemy beat us in orbital flight. Once again, Congress worked under pressure, folding the 43-year-old NACA into a new National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Under presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, NASA took on a distinctly peaceful bent, despite the Russian threat. While the agency continued to perform military tasks, the bulk of its budget went mostly to peaceful missions, including going to the Moon. NASA not only won the Cold War Moon race, it helped create what’s now a $200 billion per year satellite industry, plus the weather-prediction industry ($11 billion per year in direct economic benefit), along with technological innovations that nurtured the microelectronics, communications, and medical-device industries. While it is impossible to make a precise calculation of the exact economic benefits of NACA’s and NASA’s efforts, no expert would question the general economic benefits and the critical role the agencies have played. Together, these industries comprise 10% of the American economy—while improving the quality of life for billions of people around the world.

NACA and NASA have not followed the government agricultural model, exactly. While the land-grant universities and extension services have operated on a decentralized basis, NASA operates under a central authority, focusing on missions as well as research. But their stories combine to create an important conclusion, one that most politicians and policymakers seem to have forgotten: bold, patient, sustained, risk-spreading investments in innovative technology led directly to two of America’s largest continuing economic successes. The public knowledge ore has created the best-fed generations in the history of humanity, avoiding the mass starvation that experts had predicted as the inevitable result of increasing global populations while making it possible for people and goods to leap across continents. Along the way, private investors and entrepreneurs have tapped into that ore and created companies with millions of jobs. Without USDA and NASA, we would not have reached that state. Nor would we have achieved it without private sweat and investment. The right mixture of both holds the secret to our powerful American economy.

The problem is, we increasingly celebrate private efforts while forgetting the public ones—in spite of the evidence and experience. We continue to forget to our peril.