NASA Langley Research Center turns 100 years old

HAMPTON, Va. - From small steps...to giant leaps, mankind's ability to take to the stars has its roots at NASA Langley Research Center.

The legendary facility turned 100 years old, Monday.

"The world as we know it today in terms of being able to travel around the world with ease really the home of that is right here in Hampton, Va.," said NASA Chief Historian Bill Barry.

The Langley name goes hand-in-hand with space travel, but its origins aren't so out of this world. Langley opened its doors in 1917 as a research lab for the newly-formed NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) focusing mainly on air travel.

"The U.S. had kind of fallen behind in aviation in World War I. We said 'hey as a nation, we've gotta catch up'," said Dave Bowles, Director of NASA Langley Research Center. "(We) had a huge impact in World War II. Pretty much every fighter, bomber that flew in World War II came through Langley to be tested. Had a crucial impact in the outcome the Allied victory in that war."

Following the war, the NACA's attention turned to breaking the next barrier; the sound barrier, but Barry says that wasn't the only focus.

"There was a lot of space research going on in the NACA facilities, particularly at Langley in the 1950s," said Barry.

That research soon became part of the space race with the Soviet Union as the NACA became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Langley became a training site for astronauts who would circle the Earth and walk on the Moon. It was also a testing site for the shuttles that would get them there.

"The original Project Mercury 7 astronauts were here, did training here," said Bowles. "We have this big structure. We commonly refer to it as the Gantry. It's about 250 feet high. It's a big steel structure that you can drop things from, suspend things from. We did lunar landing simulations there. It was built in the 1960s from the Apollo program."

At the same time, Langley employees broke barriers on the inside.

The brilliant minds of mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, three African American women, proved vital to mission success. Considered trailblazers during a time of segregation their work was highlighted in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.

It’s work that would impact Langley for decades to come as NASA turned its attention beyond the Moon.

After years of helping put rovers on Mars, Bowles says getting humans to Mars is the next big step for a facility that's served as a model for other NASA locations around the country.

"NASA's journey to Mars, we have a big role on entry, descent and landing. That's a really tough part," he said. "(We're also working on) new aircraft concepts, all the way from low boom supersonic flights...down to concepts for autonomous vehicles.”

Groundbreaking work taken on by the brilliant minds at Langley – and they’re up for the challenge.

"There is so much work to be done and the folks have always been at the cutting edge and I expect they still will be 100 years from now," said Barry.