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Over 100 years, NASA's top 5 tech advances

Sharon Gaudin | April 1, 2015
NASA, and its predecessor NACA, helped develop computer chips, satellite communications and safer flight.

It worked, but it wasn't a fool-proof communication method. "You'd inflate this big silver balloon and send a radio signal at it," Barry said. "The balloons didn't stay perfectly round. They had a drag. You had to depend on having the balloon where you needed it when you needed it. But that was sort of the first attempt that proved you could send signals to space."

After Project Echo, NASA quickly shifted focus to putting satellites into orbit that could collect signals from the ground and then resend them.

"Bell Labs and the Hughes Corp. collaborated on that," added Barry. "Banking, business transactions, the whole idea of being able to see TV signals from around the world, long distance radio communications -- all comes from advances in communication satellites."

Airplane design
With NACA early research with wind tunnels, the shape and function of airplanes changed dramatically, evolving from double-winged biplanes to the single wing planes used today.

"NACA really defined the airplane as we know it," according to Barry. "In 1915, most planes were biplanes. Engineers building the planes assumed the wings had to be thin, and to reinforce them they needed wires for these skinny double wings. Then NACA, with its wind tunnel work, found that a thicker [single] wing actually worked better."

NACA engineers found that they could put structure and support inside the wing.

"Those design characteristics that we take for granted were all proven out by NACA," Barry said. "NACA had a critical wind tunnel -- the Variable Density Tunnel at Langley in Virginia. It was radically different. Nobody had done anything like that before, and it laid the groundwork for wings and wing shapes. All these things proven by the NACA were the best way to do things."

Airplane deicing
"Back in the '30s and into the beginning of the 1940s, the issue of ice on wings was a mystery," said Barry. "Some planes would fly through clouds and not get any ice on them. Others would fly through clouds, get ice on them and fall out of the sky.

"It was difficult to study because if you sent a plane up it might get ice on it and crash," he added. "It was a real big problem and an unpredictable problem at the time."

That made flying a dodgy proposition -- enough so that airplane owners had arrangements with the railroad companies to transport their passengers by train if it was a cloudy day.

To better study the icing issue, NACA built special wind tunnels designed to put ice on planes. One of the best still exists at the Glenn Research Center in Ohio.


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