10 People You Wish You Met from 100 Years of NASA’s Langley

Something happened 100 years ago that changed forever the way we fly. And then the way we explore space. And then how we study our home planet. That something was the establishment of what is now NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Founded just three months after America’s entry into World War I, Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory was established as the nation’s first civilian facility focused on aeronautical research. The goal was, simply, to “solve the fundamental problems of flight.”

From the beginning, Langley engineers devised technologies for safer, higher, farther and faster air travel. Top-tier talent was hired. State-of-the-art wind tunnels and supporting infrastructure was built. Unique solutions were found.

Langley researchers developed the wing shapes still used today in airplane design. Better propellers, engine cowlings, all-metal airplanes, new kinds of rotorcraft and helicopters, faster-than-sound flight - these were among Langley’s many groundbreaking aeronautical advances spanning its first decades.

By 1958, Langley’s governing organization, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, would become NASA, and Langley’s accomplishments would soar from air into space.

Here are 10 people you wish you met from the storied history of Langley:

Robert R. “Bob” Gilruth (1913–2000) 

  • Considered the father of the U.S. manned space program.
  • He helped organize the Manned Spacecraft Center – now the Johnson Space Center – in Houston, Texas. 
  • Gilruth managed 25 crewed spaceflights, including Alan Shepard’s first Mercury flight in May 1961, the first lunar landing by Apollo 11 in July 1969, the dramatic rescue of Apollo 13 in 1970, and the Apollo 15 mission in July 1971.

Christopher C. “Chris” Kraft, Jr. (1924-) 

  • Created the concept and developed the organization, operational procedures and culture of NASA’s Mission Control.
  • Played a vital role in the success of the final Apollo missions, the first manned space station (Skylab), the first international space docking (Apollo-Soyuz Test Project), and the first space shuttle flights.

Maxime “Max” A. Faget (1921–2004) 

  • Devised many of the design concepts incorporated into all U.S.  manned spacecraft.
  • The author of papers and books that laid the engineering foundations for methods, procedures and approaches to spaceflight. 
  • An expert in safe atmospheric reentry, he developed the capsule design and operational plan for Project Mercury, and made major contributions to the Apollo Program’s basic command module configuration.

Caldwell Johnson (1919–2013) 

  • Worked for decades with Max Faget helping to design the earliest experimental spacecraft, addressing issues such as bodily restraint and mobility, personal hygiene, weight limits, and food and water supply. 
  • A key member of NASA’s spacecraft design team, Johnson established the basic layout and physical contours of America’s space capsules.

William H. “Hewitt” Phillips (1918–2009) 

  • Provided solutions to critical issues and problems associated with control of aircraft and spacecraft. 
  • Under his leadership, NASA Langley developed piloted astronaut simulators, ensuring the success of the Gemini and Apollo missions. Phillips personally conceived and successfully advocated for the 240-foot-high Langley Lunar Landing Facility used for moon-landing training, and later contributed to space shuttle development, Orion spacecraft splashdown capabilities and commercial crew programs.

Katherine Johnson (1918-) 

  • Was one of NASA Langley’s most notable “human computers,” calculating the trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission, Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight. 
  • She verified the orbital equations controlling the capsule trajectory of John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission from blastoff to splashdown, calculations that would help to sync Project Apollo’s lunar lander with the moon-orbiting command and service module. 
  • Johnson also worked on the space shuttle and the Earth Resources Satellite, and authored or coauthored 26 research reports.

Dorothy Vaughan (1910–2008) 

  • Was both a respected mathematician and NASA’s first African-American manager, head of NASA Langley’s segregated West Area Computing Unit from 1949 until 1958. 
  • Once segregated facilities were abolished, she joined a racially and gender-integrated group on the frontier of electronic computing. 
  • Vaughan became an expert FORTRAN programmer, and contributed to the Scout Launch Vehicle Program.

William E. Stoney Jr. (1925-) 

  • Oversaw the development of early rockets, and was manager of a NASA Langley-based project that created the Scout solid-propellant rocket. 
  • One of the most successful boosters in NASA history, Scout and its payloads led to critical advancements in atmospheric and space science. 
  • Stoney became chief of advanced space vehicle concepts at NASA headquarters in Washington, headed the advanced spacecraft technology division at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, and was engineering director of the Apollo Program Office.

Israel Taback (1920–2008) 

  • Was chief engineer for NASA’s Lunar Orbiter program. Five Lunar Orbiters circled the moon, three taking photographs of potential Apollo landing sites and two mapping 99 percent of the lunar surface. 
  • Taback later became deputy project manager for the Mars Viking project. Seven years to the day of the first moon landing, on July 20, 1976, Viking 1 became NASA’s first Martian lander, touching down without incident in western Chryse Planitia in the planet’s northern equatorial region.

John C Houbolt (1919–2014) 

  • Forcefully advocated for the lunar-orbit-rendezvous concept that proved the vital link in the nation’s successful Apollo moon landing. 
  • In 1963, after the lunar-orbit-rendezvous technique was adopted, Houbolt left NASA for the private sector as an aeronautics, astronautics and advanced-technology consultant. 
  • He returned to Langley in 1976 to become its chief aeronautical scientist. During a decades-long career, Houbolt was the author of more than 120 technical publications.

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China’s ‘Heavenly Ship’ prepares for inaugural flight, paving way for larger orbital station.

China’s space program is about to reach a new milestone Thursday (April 20) as the country prepares to launch the Tianzhou-1 spacecraft. Tianzhou-1 is China’s first space station cargo freighter and will be used to resupply the upcoming Chinese Space Station. Weighing over 13 tons, the mission will also be the heaviest payload China has ever sent into orbit.

Set for a five-month mission, Tianzhou-1 will perform the country’s first orbital logistics mission with the Tiangong-2 space laboratory. The space station testbed last saw occupants in September 2016 with the Shenzhou-11 crew.

The spacecraft will conduct three autonomous rendezvous with Tiangong-2 as well as the demonstration of the necessary logistics required to maintain an orbital outpost such as propellant transfer, orbit raising, and an expedited rendezvous to and from Earth. 

Tianzhou vessels will be able to carry up to 14,330 pounds (6,500 kilograms) of cargo into orbit; for comparison, Russian Progress vehicles that resupply the International Space Station can carry up to 5,180 pounds (2,350 kilograms) of cargo, though it is a smaller vessel.

Tianzhou-1 and Tiangong-2 are seen rendezvousing in orbit in this CNSA rendering. The two spacecraft share commonality in their design.

Tianzhou-1, which means ‘Heavenly Ship” in Chinese, largely resembles the Tiangong modules which served as space station technology demonstrators in 2011 and 2016. Both vehicles are identical in size, though the freighter has a shorter solar array wingspan. Future modules of the CSS will be significantly larger and of different designs.

The spacecraft will fly on the new Long March 7 rocket which made its inaugural - and so far only - flight in June of 2016. Long March 7, also known as CZ-7, will be the new workhorse in the Chinese space program as the country aims to retire the older Long March 2F in the next few years. All crewed and logistic flights to the CSS will use the CZ-7 while the station’s modules will be lofted by the larger Long March 5 which also made its inaugural flight in 2016.

Liftoff is scheduled for 7:41pm local time, or 7:41am EDT, on Thursday, April 20, from Launch Pad 201 at the new Wenchang spaceport on Hainan island in the South China Sea. As seen in the photos above, the rocket was rolled from the Vertical Assembly Building to LC-201 at the Wenchang Island spaceport on Monday, April 17.

Artist’s rendering of the Chinese Space Station which is scheduled to be fully assembled by the early 2020s.

Following the mission of Tianzhou-1, Chinese aerospace officials will be confident enough to begin final preparations for the modular Chinese Space Station, the second major phase of China’s aerospace program. The CSS will be a Mir-class station, smaller than the International Space Station but larger than an all-in-one outpost such as Skylab or the Tiangongs.

Two science modules will be attached to a central core module which will house crew accommodations, life support systems, and vehicle docking ports. Regular flights of Tianzhou freighters will bring experiments and supplies to maintain the outpost and its three-member crews, which will rotate in the Shenzhou spacecraft.

The core module is expected to arrive in orbit by late 2018 with the additional modules on orbit and fully assembled by early 2020. A Hubble-class telescope will also accompany the CSS in orbit though will not attach to the station. It will orbit near enough to the station to where crewmembers can easily make repairs to the telescope, unlike servicing missions to the Hubble which required a dedicated space shuttle mission independent of the ISS.