The Impact of Aviation on Texas

The Military and NASA Example


1.) Introduction

We have had a very interesting day yesterday examining various aspects of Texas history. Our focus was on the military activities since the founding of the Republic of Texas and the prior events that led to this signal event. There is a very long tradition of military aviation in Texas going back to the days immediately prior to and then following the entry of the United States into the First World War. The very first use of airplanes by the U.S. Army occurred during the Philippine Campaign which ended in 1913. However the first use in the continental U.S. was later in 1916 in the punitive expedition that was mounted to chase down Pancho Villa following his raid on Columbus, New Mexico. After the war in Europe the U.S. Army developed an extensive aviation training and operational complex around San Antonio. The focus is still at Randolph Field and the facilities south of the city’s center. Good flying weather the year around and warm weather were the critical factors. Flight testing and training could both be carried out easily all year around. Furthermore, hangars did not have to be strengthened against snowfall or heated in freezing weather. These were very substantial cost factors. I still remember looking at our housekeeping budgets for air bases when I was Secretary of the Air Force. In terms of our strategic air command bases, believe me that it was much more expensive to maintain Minot Air Force base in North Dakota than Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin.

During the Second World War, a strong aviation industry developed in Texas. Some famous names in aviation as Chance Vought and Lloyd Stearman are good examples. But, from my rather prejudiced viewpoint the most important of these people is Larry Bell who moved his company to Fort Worth from Buffalo, New York in 1946.

In the case of the nation’s space program, the dominant position of Texas in this area is the result of the work of two extraordinary people, Lyndon B. Johnson and Albert Thomas. What started as the NASAManned Spacecraft Center and is now the NASA-Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center was located in Houston because of the clout that these two leaders possessed.

To sum up our meeting here, I thought that it would be appropriate for me to describe my personal experiences working with Bell Helicopter and with the NASA-Johnson Space Center. I worked for more than thirty years on two very important programs. The first one was a military endeavor, the tilt-rotor aircraft. The second dealt with space exploration, the Space Shuttle. I will discuss both of these programs in some detail.

2.) Military Aviation: The Bell Tilt-Rotor Aircraft

The Bell-Textron Helicopter Plant and Corporate Headquarters are located in Hurst, Texas, just east of Fort Worth. The concept of the tiltrotor aircraft originated in England and in Germany in the years before World War II. The Baynes Heliplane and the Focke Wulf Achgelis were never built as real airplanes. However, the idea took hold. After the end of the Second World War, a Texan, Dr. Robert L. Lichten established Transcendental Aircraft Company to develop tilt-rotor aircraft. The basic technical idea was to create a flying machine that can take-off and land like a helicopter and fly like an airplane. Once it has reached an appropriate altitude, it can fly just as a conventional aircraft in which normal wings provide the lift. The technical means for accomplishing this objective was to change the orientation (ie. the tilt) of the axis of the rotors (or prop rotors, as they are called) so that it is vertical in the helicopter mode and horizontal in the airplane mode. The Transcendental 1-G Tilt-Rotor Aircraft developed by Dr. Lichten could fly in the helicopter mode but never made the full transition to full horizontal flight. The 1-G was too small, flimsy and under powered to perform this maneuver.

Nevertheless, the concept was pursued. Even though the Transcendental Company failed, the Army expressed an interest in the tilt-rotor idea. Funding was provided to develop and build a tilt-rotor aircraft that would prove the concept by building a larger and more capable tilt-rotor aircraft. This was the XV-3 and Bell won the contract to build the tiltrotor aircraft of this type. The NASA-Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California was designated by the Army to monitor the technical progress and to supervise the contract. The extensive wind tunnel facilities at the Center were also to be used to make certain that the XV-3 performed as intended. The Bell XV-3 made over one hundred flights in which transition from vertical to horizontal flight was achieved.

In February 1969, I was appointed director of the NASA Ames Research Center. In 1969, the XV-3 was still at Ames and there was a general feeling that it was time to take the next step in tilt-rotor aircraft technology. The Transcendental 1-G and the Bell XV-3 both had the same fundamental configuration. The engine was mounted in the center of the fuselage behind the pilot. In the case of the 1-G the Lycoming engine developed 160 horsepower to lift the 1750 pound aircraft. The XV-3 carried a 450 horsepower air cooled Pratt and Whitney radial engine for a 4890 pound aircraft. In both aircraft the engine power was transmitted to the prop rotors mounted on the wing tips by a system of gears and shafts that necessarily resulted in significant power losses. Both of the aircraft were therefore seriously underpowered. While the XV-3 proved that conversion from horizontal to vertical flight was a practical proposition, it could carry no payload.

A technical achievement developed after the XV-3 was designed in the late 1950s was the turboprop engine. These powerful engines had a much better power to weight ratio than the reciprocating engines they replaced. Largely on the initiative of Ames engineers, Woodrow L. Cook, Wallace Decker and Charles William Harper and their colleagues at Bell, Henry Smyth, Rod and Ken Warnicke and Richard Spivey, a new concept was developed. The new turboprop engines were light enough that the entire engine could be mounted on the wing tip. This change in configuration eliminated the complex power transmission system characteristic of the XV-3. The aircraft designed to develop the new concept was designated the XV-15. The concept of the XV-15 was developed in detail by engineers at Ames and Bell and by Army officers who established the military requirements in 1970 and 1971. In early 1972, I signed a contract with Bell President James Atkins to build two XV-15 aircraft for a total cost of $50 million. Half of the funds were to be provided by the Army and the other half by NASA. Mr. David Few at NASA-Ames was selected as project manager. He turned in a superb performance and the success of the whole effort was largely due to his work.

The Army’s requirement was to build a tilt-rotor aircraft with a gross weight of a little more than 13,000 lbs. It would be powered by two 1250 horsepower Lycoming turbo prop engines. The requirement for which the Army people felt that the aircraft was peculiarly well suited was the medical evacuation mission. The advantage of the tilt-rotor airplane for this mission is that it was faster and had a longer range than the Bell UH-1 helicopter. The first flight of the XV-15 occurred on May 3, 1977. It was exhilarating for all of us to participate in this success. Indeed, it was an elegant time. The XV-15 underwent an intensive three year test program between 1978 and 1981. During this time it flew operations from ships, search and rescue operations, combat support operations and finally achieved a high speed flight during which the aircraft reached a maximum speed of 290 knots in straight and level flight. The XV-15 flight test program was terminated by Army Undersecretary James Ambrose in 1981 even though the program was deemed to be very successful. It was, what I believe, a mistaken priority judgment made by the Army’s leadership.

The Falkland Islands War in the spring of 1982 revived interest in the tilt-rotor aircraft concept. The French built Exocet ship attack missile was used for the first time in this war by Argentina. Three British ships were sunk by these missiles which have a range of about 50 miles, well beyond the range of conventional artillery or aerial bombs. In an amphibious operation, U.S. Marine Corps doctrine called for a stand-off distance for the assault ships of 15 miles. Helicopters would take off from the ships and would deliver troop re-enforcements and supplies to the beach 15 miles away, out of range of small caliber artillery. The existence the Exocet changed all that. With long range missiles, the stand-off distance had to be increased to something like 50 miles. The tilt-rotor aircraft was seen as the solution to the problem. If a tilt-rotor airplane with some payload capacity as the Sikorsky CH-53 helicopter (25,000 lbs.) could be built, then the superior range and speed of the tilt-rotor compared to the helicopter would be decisive. With such airplanes, the Marine Corps could supply troops on a beach with assault ships standing off shore fifty miles at sea.

In 1981 and 1982, I was serving as Deputy Administrator of NASA so that I had standing to advise the Navy and Marine people on aviation matters. In addition, the new Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, was himself a naval aviator. Richard Spivey and George Leitman of Bell and I arranged several meetings with Secretary Lehman and Marine Corps Commandant General P.X. Kelley. We succeeded in persuading them to take a serious look at the tilt-rotor aircraft as a solution to the new problem presented by the Exocet missile. Eventually, these conversations led to the development of the V-22 “Osprey” aircraft concept.

The V-22 program was initiated in May 1986 with a full scale development contract to the Bell-Boeing team to build a large tilt-rotor transport. The Bell-Boeing V-22 would be a big airplane with a maximum gross take-off weight of 60,000 lbs. which was a major change from the much smaller XV-15. The V-22 was given the name “Osprey” by Secretary Lehman and the first flight of the airplane was executed on March 19, 1989. The first full conversion from vertical to horizontal flight occurred on September 14, 1989. The “Osprey” also has the ability to fold its wings and its rotors. This folding of the wing and the rotors is a very complex operation but it is absolutely necessary. With the wings folded, it is possible to place twenty V-22 aircraft on an LPD assault ship which provides a formidable new military capability for the U.S. amphibious assault forces. As we speak there are now fifty operational V-22 “Osprey” aircraft in the Marine Corps inventory. All of these aircraft were manufactured in the new Bell-Textron factory in Amarillo. So I am pleased to report that tilt-rotor aviation is still an all Texas story.

A very rewarding event for those of us who have been associated with tilt-rotor aviation for a long time was the decision of the Smithsonian Air and space Museum to include the XV-15 in the exhibit of important aircraft that were examples of major advances in aviation. The XV-15 is now included in the exhibit at the Museum’s new facility near Dulles airport.

Finally, it is important to mention what lies in the future of tilt-rotor aviation. One direction is to see if the tilt-rotor concept can be used to replace the Lockheed C-130 conventional turboprop transport. This cannot be done without increasing the number of engines on the aircraft. The concept now being explored is the “Quadrotor”. The most important technical problem that needs to be solved is the interference between the forward and the aft wings which will clearly affect the performance. Wind tunnel measurements and computer simulations show promising results. However, the jury is still out and it will take much more work to determine whether the quadrotor concept is a workable proposition. The other development has to do with commercial applications of the tiltrotor aircraft concept. From the beginning, many of us connected with the tilt-rotor technology thought that there would be important commercial applications. About two years ago, Bell reached an agreement with the Italian aircraft firm Agusta, to develop and build an executive utility tilt-rotor aircraft. Last March, the Bell/Agusta 609 flew for the first time. The current estimate is that there may be as many as 3000 customers for aircraft of this type.

3.) Houston and the Space Shuttle

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established in 1958 in response to the Soviets launching of the first man made satellite, Sputnik I. The first flight was followed rapidly by a second satellite and that carried a dog, “Laika” which was the first living being to go into space. The fact is that the United States was beaten to be the first in space and this was an acute embarrassment to a nation that thought of itself as the leader of the world in technology. The crowning blow came in April 1961 when Soviet Air Force Captain Yuri Gagarian became the first man to orbit the Earth. By this time, John F. Kennedy had succeeded Dwight Eisenhower as President. He was acutely aware of the political problem that would be created for him if the United States remained behind the Soviet Union in what had by now become a “Space Race.”

On April 20, 1961, a week after Yuri Gagarin’s flight, the new president sent a memo to Vice President Lyndon Johnson in which he asked the following questions:

“Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space or by a trip around the Moon, or by a rocket to land on the Moon, or by a rocket to go to the Moon and back with a man? Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?”

Wernher von Braun received a copy of this letter in his capacity as the director of the NASA-George C. Marshall Space Flight Center. Here are von Braun’s answers to the president’s questions:

“a.) We do not have a good chance of beating the Soviets to a ‘manned laboratory in space’.

b.) We have a sporting chance of beating the Soviets to a soft landing of a radio transmitter station on the Moon.

c.) We have a sporting chance of sending a three man crew around the Moon ahead of the Soviets.

d.) We have an excellent chance of beating the Soviets to a first landing of a crew on the Moon (including return capability, of course).”

The last point in von Braun’s response is the important one and it caught President Kennedy’s attention. In spite of opposition from most of his cabinet and other senior advisors, including his science advisor, MIT Professor Jerome Wiesner, he decided to pick up von Braun’s suggestion. Only a month after receiving von Braun’s letter, Kennedy, in an address to
the Congress on May 25, 1961 said, “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon, and returning him safely to Earth.” Thus, von Braun became the initiator of the trip to the Moon.

In February 1969, I joined NASA as the director of the NASA-Ames Research Center. The Center is located at the south end of San Francisco Bay at what used to be the old Naval Air Station at Moffett Field which is now a Federal Air Field operated by NASA-Ames. Almost immediately, I became involved in the planning of the “Post Apollo Program”. This process had been initiated by President Nixon who, anticipating a successful landing on the Moon some time in 1969, asked the NASA managers to start planning for what comes next. The planning function was given to a “Management Council” that would be headed by Dr. George Mueller, the NASA Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight. The directors of the nine NASA centers were all members of the Council and it was in my capacity as a new center director that I became a member of the “Management Council.”

It was during the early months of 1969 that the “Management Council” was particularly active. The dominant members of the council were Drs. Robert R. Gilruth and Wernher von Braun who were respectively the directors of the NASA-Manned Spacecraft Center (MSFC) in Houston and the NASA-George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The overall plan of Gilruth and von Braun was to create an infrastructure in near Earth orbit that would involve a space station that would be permanently occupied by people and a space shuttle vehicle that would be used to move cargo and people between the ground and the space station. During the early months of 1969, Dr. Gilruth and his highly talented technical deputy Dr. Maxime Faget visited NASA-Ames several times. They were looking for support from Ames because we had many of the facilities and also the people who would be necessary to successfully execute the program that was evolving from the work of the “Management Council.” Max Faget was especially important. He was a genuine engineering genius who had designed the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space craft and was now deeply involved in the design of the space shuttle.

The space station/space shuttle idea was first broached in a series of articles that were first published in Collier’s Magazine between March 1952 and June 1954. Wernher von Braun was the principal author of these articles so that the discussions in the “Management Council” really revolved around the implementation of von Braun’s ideas. These were developed in October 1969 by the “Management Council” for briefings to the then NASA Administrator Dr. Thomas O. Paine. The space station /space shuttle idea was accepted by the NASA management and implementation was delegated to the NASA-Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston.

The decision to locate the headquarters of NASA’s program to put people in space in Houston was made late in November 1960. Texas U.S. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, the Vice President-elect, was determined to place a major NASA facility in Texas because he foresaw that the space exploration program would grow. He believed that Texas, with its aviation industry developed during World War II, would provide the technical capability to make important contributions to the program. Within NASA, the “Space Task Group”, which had the responsibility for planning NASA’s manned space program, was located at the NASA-Langley Research Center in Virginia at the time. Robert Gilruth was a division chief at Langley and Max Faget was his deputy. When the decision to move the “Space Task Group” to Houston was made, Gilruth was designated as the director. The plan was that construction of the new center in Houston would begin in 1962 and that the move from Langley would begin in 1963 and would be complete by 1964. Johnson enlisted the aid of Houston Congressman Albert Thomas to organize things in Houston. The land on which the Center is located was leased to the government for a nominal sum by the owner, Rice University. The condition put on the lease was that the building at the new center would have to be “university
style” so that if the government pulled out, the buildings would revert to the university and could use them profitably. (Note: The name of the Manned Spacecraft Center was changed to Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center when President Johnson died in 1974.)

My first visit to the Manned Spacecraft Center was in July 1969. As a newly minted NASA center director, I rated a ticket to the event. My wife and I showed up in Houston a day before the scheduled landing of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. We were seated in the visitor’s gallery that is separated by a glass partition from the Mission Operations Control Room late in the evening of July 20th, 1969. From this vantage point we could see all the activities in the room. We could also see the television screens at the front of the room that would show the first telemetry pictures from the Moon. It was a great moment when the flickering picture of Neil Armstrong’s foot as he stepped down the ladder from the lunar excursion module “Eagle” appeared on the screen. It was indeed “one small step for a man but a giant leap for mankind”. It was also a moment that I shall never forget.

My second and much longer visit to the Manned Space Center Spacecraft Center was in April 1970 following the explosion aboard Apollo 13 that almost destroyed the spacecraft. NASA Deputy Administration George Low called me shortly after the accident and told me that I would be appointed to serve on the Apollo 13 Review Board and that he wanted me to come to Houston as soon as possible. Thus, I had the opportunity to observe the work of the flight control team in the Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR) save the lives of the Apollo 13 astronauts. It was a unique example of working under great pressure with exquisite judgment and competence. To this day, I believe that the saving of the Apollo 13 astronauts was NASA’s finest moment. I saw the photographs of the severely damaged service module and this greatly enhanced my
respect for the people who worked in NASA’s manned space flight program. Without question, they were extremely competent and courageous.

During 1970, decisions were made about the proposals for the space station/space shuttle program that were developed by the “Management Council.” Generally, the response of the NASA management was positive. The basic idea of creating an infrastructure in Earth orbit that could be used for research and as a staging base for more ambitious missions out into the Solar System was accepted. The one major modification was caused by the circumstance that funding to do both the space station and the space shuttle at the same time was not available. Therefore we had to decide which to do first. This issue was thoroughly debated in the “Management Council” with Wernher von Braun leading the discussions. During this time, I developed a strong friendship with von Braun. We shared the same native language (German) and we also had a passion for sailing boats. I was very impressed by his technical knowledge and judgment. Ultimately, we recommended to acting NASA Administrator George Low that we should build the space shuttle first. (Note: Dr. Thomas Paine had resigned as NASA Administrator early in 1970 and his deputy, George Low acting administrator.) Our reasoning was that this project was more difficult technically than the space station. Therefore, it was the pacing item that would determine the schedule for the entire program. This recommendation was accepted and the development of the space shuttle began in earnest. The Ames Research Center was designated to be the prime center for the development of the thermal protection system of the space shuttle orbiter and a contributing center to the flight control system and the human factors connected with space flight. It was a great new experience for me to participate in all of this and to have the opportunity to associate with the distinguished people who participated in these events.

Work on the Space Shuttle Program was very intense in 1970 and 1971 and it was carried out under the superb leadership of George Low. The configuration of the Space Shuttle that finally evolved is called the “stage-and-a-half” configuration. It consisted of two large solid fueled rocket boosters, a large externally mounted fuel tank that contained the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that was used by the three large rocket engines mounted under the vertical fin of the shuttle orbiter. President Nixon gave the “go ahead” for the Space Shuttle Program in February 1972 during the beginning of the term of NASA Administrator Dr. James C. Fletcher.

The years following the approval of the space Shuttle Program were busy and very interesting. At Ames, we executed the tasks on the thermal protection system that had been given to us. On September 17, 1976, I had the great privilege to attend the roll-out of the first space shuttle orbiter, the “Enterprise.” The “Enterprise” was not a working spacecraft. The airframe had been built to the same specifications that would be used for all the other shuttle vehicles. However, she had no rocket engines. The “Enterprise” would be used to perform a series of approach and landing test flights to explore the fight envelope of the shuttle orbiter flying in the atmosphere. This was clearly important if the shuttle was to become the fully reusable space ship that we had planned for seven years before. In addition, the “Enterprise” would also be used to perform the “form, fit and function” activities at the NASA-John F. Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

I spent the years from 1977 to 1981 in the Pentagon serving first as Undersecretary (1977–1979) and then as Secretary of the Air Force (1979–1981). In these capacities, I had supervisory responsibilities for the Air Force Space Program. The important point here was that the Air Force would use the space shuttle to launch some its most important military spacecraft into Earth orbit. Late in 1979, there was a major budget crisis in the Space Shuttle Program. A cost problem of more than a billion dollars had accumulated over the years largely because of problems with  the large liquid fueled rockets - the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME). Several had failed in the test program and as a result the initial launch of the shuttle had to be delayed from 1979 to 1981. All of this added to the total cost of the program. Because of the large amount of money involved, President Carter considered cancellation of the entire program. Such a move would have to be a presidential decision. Accordingly, when all the analyses were complete, there was a meeting in the White House on November 14th, 1979. It was attended by the president and his principal budget and technical advisors. The president’s science and technology advisor, Professor Frank Press of MIT, orchestrated the discussion. The Director of the Office of Management and Budget, James McIntyre and his assistant W. Bowman Cutter began by laying out the budgetary considerations. They were followed by Dr. Robert A. Frosch who eloquently advocated the continuation of the program. I followed Dr. Frosch and as the Secretary of the Air Force, I also represented the Department of Defense. I supported the arguments made by Dr. Frosch as strongly as I could. During these presentations, the president asked a number of questions. Since he had a strong technical background, having earned an engineering degree from the Naval Academy, the questions were good and to the point. No decisions were reached at the meeting. However, a few days later, we were notified that the president had made the decision go ahead. All of us were relieved by this move. We had invested much time and money in the program and it would have been wrong to stop at this point.

When the Carter administration ended in January 1981, I was ready to go back to California and to assume a research position at Ames. In fact, I had already made the arrangements to do that. As things turned out, my old mentor and boss, Mr. James M. Beggs, was named NASA administrator by President-elect Reagan who would lead the new administration. Jim Beggs called me shortly after the inauguration asking me whether I would be willing to work with him as the deputy administrator of NASA. I agreed to do so and some time in March, I was formally notified by the White House personnel office that the new president would submit a nomination for me to hold that post. As it happened, the first flight of the space shuttle “Columbia” was scheduled for April 12th, 1981. Dr. Frosch had already resigned but his deputy, who was now acting administrator, Dr. Alan M. Lovelace was an old friend of mine. I called and asked him whether I could attend the first shuttle launch in the Mission Operations Control Room. He readily agreed to my request. Not only that, he told me that I would have a place in the MOCR with the people at the Manned Spacecraft Center who had managed the Space Shuttle Orbiter Program. This was quite a privilege for me because I was not yet confirmed by the U.S. Senate in my new position. On the appointed day, I arrived at the MSC and went to the MOCR. Because of our long collaboration on the space shuttle while I was director at Ames and because they all knew that I would soon be the deputy administrator, I was warmly welcomed. On April 12th, we were all in the MOCR during the countdown. When the great moment came and the great white bird lifted off the ground without a problem, there was a great cheer. In those days, we could still follow the old tradition of lighting up cigars following a successful launch and that is what we did.

After the first shuttle launch, I made it my business to be present in the MOCR during every shuttle launch operation. I felt that it was my responsibility to do this because I was the one who would have to take the blame if anything went wrong. During “Columbia’s” second mission in September 1981, President Reagan visited the MOCR. It happened this way: I was sitting at my console a few hours before the launch and Dr. Chris Kraft, the director of the Johnson Space Center was sitting at the one to my left. He had been reading the morning “Houston Chronicle” and showed me a story about the president’s plan to visit Houston in two days. Chris leaned over and asked me whether it might not be a good idea to invite the president to visit the MOCR. I agreed with Chris and made some telephone calls to Washington. A few hours later, Chris and I were notified that the White House people had agreed that this would be a good idea and that the president would indeed come for a visit. A day later at about 2:00 pm President Reagan showed up with a small entourage. By this time, “Columbia” had been launched and was in orbit. We patched President Reagan into the communications system and he had a short conversation with astronauts Joe Engle and Dick Truly. He truly enjoyed himself. In a few minutes, the voices of the astronauts faded in the middle of the conversation. The president turned to me and asked, “What happened?” I told him that we could only speak to the astronauts when “Columbia” was over one of our ground stations distributed around the world (this was before we had the rely satellites that made continuous communications possible). Thus, we would have to wait for a few minutes before we could have access to “Columbia” again. The president turned to Mike Deaver, one of his principal assistants who was standing behind the console with us. He asked him to cancel the rest of the day’s schedule so that he could stay in the MOCR and learn about our operations. He did just that. The president talked some more with the astronauts; visited all of the consoles in the MOCR and asked the people there what they were doing. The president spent an hour and a half with us with us rather than the scheduled twenty minutes. After the visit, we knew that the president was very much interested in our program.

About three weeks later, we all received an invitation to the White House for a ceremony. It turned out that the president had decided to award NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal personally to the astronauts who flew “Columbia’s” second mission. It was a great moment. Two years later, Jim Beggs and I would be in the same office with the president as he signed the order that initiated the International Space Station Program. It was a memorable time for all of us.

(Note: The quotes came from Exploring the Unknown, The Evolution of Space Policy and Plans. Vol I, NASA-SP4407, p 424 and p 430)