Hugh L. Dryden and the American Space Program

Congress has proposed that the name of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center be re-named to honor Neil Armstrong. Should it?

President John F. Kennedy is briefed by Wernher Von Braun (partly hidden) and Hugh Dryden (speaking to the President) at Pad B, Complex 37, Cape Canaveral, Florida, November 1963. (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library)

As a memorial to honor Neil Armstrong’s contributions to aeronautics and astronautics, a bill (HR 6612) was recently introduced by Congressman Kevin McCarthy and passed by the House of Representatives to change the name of the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center (a field center proximate to Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave desert north of Los Angeles) to the Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center.  While I take a back seat to no one in regard to my respect and admiration for Neil and his life of accomplishment, I think that this effort is both mistaken and inappropriate.

Who was this Dryden guy anyway?  Hugh L. Dryden was an American aeronautical engineer who became the last head of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA)* in 1947 and the first Deputy Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958.  Dryden had a long research career in the complexities of airflow and the boundary layer, critical subjects in the science of aerodynamics.  Dryden’s published work in this field became standard texts for upcoming aeronautical engineers and aircraft designers.  Dryden, a quiet man whose life story is filled with notable achievements and roles, took the lead in establishing the National Academy of Engineering, the sister entity of the National Academy of Science.

In 1958, an act of Congress established NASA which absorbed the NACA and its aeronautical research facilities, including the field centers of Langley Aeronautical Laboratory near Hampton VA, Lewis (now Glenn) Research Center in Cleveland OH, and Ames Research Center next to Moffett Field in CA.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower tapped T. Keith Glennan to be NASA’s first Administrator.  Hugh Dryden was asked to join the new agency as its first Deputy.  In his new role, Dryden was a key link to the immediate past, providing both institutional memory and continuity of service.  The NACA had been involved in space research, including the X-15 project, a rocket-powered, piloted aircraft capable of supersonic transport to the outer fringes of the atmosphere.  Neil Armstrong, a NACA test pilot, flew seven X-15 missions before his career as a NASA Gemini and Apollo astronaut.

Dryden and the NACA worked with the U.S. Air Force on the MISS (Man-In-Space-Soonest) project, which ultimately became Project Mercury, our first human spaceflight program.  This program was being developed and managed out of Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, a NACA facility.  The Space Task Group at Langley was headed by Bob Gilruth (later center director of Johnson Space Center), with Max Faget as one of his young, bright engineers grappling with the problems of hypersonic and orbital flight.

Hugh Dryden performed admirably the job of technocrat and manager during these early, exciting years, but perhaps his biggest contribution to space history is barely known.  The fate of Project Mercury was unknown in early 1961.  Recently sworn in as the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy seemed supportive of bold new technical endeavors but had been largely silent on his plans, if any, for the civil space program.  Although Kennedy made much about a supposed “missile gap” with the Soviet Union, this policy discussion was focused entirely on our parity in ICBM deployment (or rather, the alleged lack thereof).

This all changed in April of that fateful year.  The Soviets launched Yuri Gagarin on his single orbit flight, once again beating America to the punch by putting the first man in space.  In the same month, the United States suffered a humiliating military and diplomatic setback with the very public failure of an American-instigated invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.  The new President eagerly sought a high-visibility field of endeavor (preferably technological) in which America could demonstrate its superiority over the USSR.  Initially, the desalination of seawater was a leading candidate among the many projects Kennedy considered.  However, at the height of the Cold War, that challenge didn’t quite fill the bill.

On April 14, two days after Gagarin orbited the Earth, Kennedy met with his new NASA Administrator James Webb and his deputy, the holdover from the Eisenhower Administration, Hugh Dryden.  During this meeting, Dryden pointed out that while the Soviets could beat America to many different space “firsts,” a near-term human landing on the Moon was out of reach for both nations – that while declaring a “contest” with the Soviets on virtually any space goal ran the risk of America losing, odds were even for the first manned lunar landing.  America could not go to the Moon now, but likely we could within a few years.  Thus, if space was to be the chosen field for a superpower contest, Dryden believed the goal of a human lunar landing was the challenge we could win.

Kennedy received a detailed memorandum outlining all his space options from Vice President Lyndon Johnson on April 29, 1961, but Dryden had already forcefully made his case for a lunar landing to the President two weeks earlier.  It is often thought that Wernher von Braun was the one who convinced Kennedy that the Moon was the proper goal for Apollo, but Dryden had digested and presented von Braun’s technical arguments in policy terms that Kennedy could understand.  In the public’s mind, von Braun was “Dr. Space,” largely because of his work with Walt Disney in the 1950s popularizing the idea of space travel.  But it was Hugh Dryden who helped turn the dream of landing people on the Moon into a political commitment from the President and ultimately, a reality.

Hugh Dryden remained the Deputy Administrator of NASA until his untimely death in 1965.  He has been honored with a crater named for him on the Moon and as the namesake of the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, an entirely appropriate memorial given his contributions to aeronautics and his key role in the establishment of the Apollo program.  He was at the right place (the White House) with the right President (Kennedy) at the right time (when America needed a challenging yet achievable space goal).  His life was one of service and excellence.  I think it does a disservice to the memory of Hugh Dryden to re-name the Dryden Flight Research Center and what’s more, I believe that Neil – the consummate gentleman – would also view HR 6612, the congressional bill passed to drop Dryden’s name and insert his in its stead, as unnecessary and wrong-headed.

I certainly agree that we should name a major facility for Neil Armstrong.   May I suggest that the first manned lunar outpost be named for Neil Armstrong – the first man to set foot on the Moon.

* Pronounced by saying each individual letter: “N-A-C-A,” not as a single word, as we do for its successor agency, NASA.


Note Added Jan. 7, 2013:   I have been reminded that the NASA Authorization Act of 2008 had already designated the American portion of the then-planned international lunar outpost as the “Neil A. Armstrong Lunar Outpost” (sec. 404 b).  Thanks to both Bill Mellberg and Joel Raupe for jogging my memory on this.

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