I Was There: “The Tremendous Potential of Rocketry”

Jimmy Doolittle remembers the birth of the U.S. space program.

In 1958, NACA facilities, like Ohio’s Lewis Research Center, were re-labeled NASA centers. (NASA History Office)
Air & Space Magazine

On April 21, 1969, three months before the first Apollo moon landing, NASA historian Eugene M. Emme, together with William D. Putnam of the NASA historical staff, interviewed U.S. Air Force General James H. Doolittle, chairman of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics from 1957 to 1958, when it was dissolved to form the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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DOOLITTLE: A little background on the wisdom of the people who established the NASA of kicking all of us old restricted thinkers out and getting some new folks with greater vision in: I gave a talk about Dr. Robert Goddard at a conference by the American Rocket Society, in which a large number of people who were interested in rocketry were assembled in New York. This was shortly after World War II, at a time when we had not yet given much credence to the tremendous potential of rocketry, and some of us in the airplane business looked with a slightly raised eyebrow at some of these rocket people, who seemed to us to be unduly enthusiastic. While there were undoubtedly geniuses among them, most of us looked at them as starry-eyed.

NACA was more free from political intervention than probably any other governmental organization. As a consequence, the NACA was able to carry out its mission, with the only problem being the acquisition of funds each year. For this, it was necessary for the director and chairman to go before Congress. This was a unique situation, one that those of us who had long been with the NACA disliked very much to give up. This was, I think, more than anything else the reason for a reluctance on the part of the NACA to be converted into the NASA.

EMME: I often wondered how John F. Victory [a longtime NACA executive] and Hugh L. Dryden [late-term NACA chairman and NASA deputy administrator] worked so closely in the internal operations of the NACA. Victory helped the NACA time and again, doing things on Capitol Hill that Dryden wouldn’t touch with a long pole.

Hugh Dryden was a very shy person. You had to come to Hugh to get him to open up. John was very outgoing and quite uninhibited. Sometimes it was necessary to shout. Hugh did not have it in him to shout. John did. So they worked together very well. John had an association with the NACA since its inception [1915], and remembered everything and everybody.

EMME: What do you remember about presiding over the committee meetings?

I have sat as chairman of a great many committees but I don’t know anywhere the job was as pleasant and free from  abrasion as in the old NACA. You had the weather department, the Army, the Navy, the Army Air Corps, the Bureau of Standards, the Smithsonian. Tremendously diverse agencies, but the way in which that group worked to produce superior aircraft and equipment was absolutely amazing. Somebody way back in the NACA developed the habit of making this an organization that worked for the betterment of the country and not any individual group. I don’t remember ever having had a real conflict between the Army and the Navy.

EMME: Does Jerome Hunsaker [NACA chairman from 1941 to 1957] still have the view of rocketry as in 1957? He told Theodore von Kármán [head of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory]: “You can have that Buck Rogers stuff.”

Well, some of us never learn, but I’ve learned.

EMME: Were you involved with Hugh Dryden and the “young Turks” of the NACA, where he kept out the top people and let the younger chaps let their hair down and look at the space challenge to see whether they wanted to get in?

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