NASA’s oldest campus, the Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA, turns 100 this year. Miles spoke at the centennial celebration in mid-July and we thought you would enjoy this edited version of his speech. Thank you to Caleb Stern and NASA Langley for providing the video.
I am honored to be among you all here in the cradle, the birthplace of the NACA… which of course stood for Not Another Corny Acronym.
No, I’m talking about the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which of course added space to its portfolio and adopted the name NASA in 1958.
This is the place they lovingly call the Mother Center. And I suppose there are days when you aren’t feeling the love so much, that “mother” gets a noun tacked on end of it that rhymes with “trucker”.
If it wasn’t for Langley, airplanes and spacecraft would be all… uh… trucked up. They would not fly as fast and high… And they would have made many craters on the Moon or Mars.
Tonight as we celebrate a dynamic, rich history. I want us all—as proud, card carrying propeller heads and space cadets—to think about where we are now, what’s ahead in the next hundred years, and what we need to ensure the future is as illustrious as the past.
First, a confession: I’m not a scientist, I just play one on TV.
Indeed I am a history major and thus I am under mandate to first take a look back.
Nearly 114 years ago, thanks to the unlikely accomplishment not far from here of two bicycle makers from Dayton, the world moved into the powered flight era.
Even though innovators from this country led the way, by the 19-teens, the US was falling behind in the world of aviation. Other nations had taken the stick and begun pushing the aviation envelope.
A dozen years after the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, England, Germany and Russia had amassed a fleet of a thousand airplanes, while in the United States there were only 30.
As is often the case, the brutal demands of war woke us up from our nap. Indeed, it was the war to end all wars that precipitated the birth of the Langley Research Center.
In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the legislation that brought the NACA into existence.
Mayor Tuck told me the initial appropriation was $5,000. That’s $104k today. I suspect that pays for the toilet paper.
Its mission statement: "To supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight with a view to their practical solution."
Less than two years later, the government purchased land to follow through on that goal in here in Hampton, Virginia.
The airfield and laboratory were both named after Samuel Pierpont Langley, an astronomer, physicist, inventor, and early secretary of the Smithsonian Institution… and, ironically, the vanquished rival of Orville and Wilbur Wright.
Soon the wind tunnels were built, and the ideas were hatched, tested, and retested, leading to a series of aviation firsts—pushing aviation to heights the Wrights and Langley could not have imagined.
If the Wrights gave birth to a baby, Langley is where it was enrolled in school.
Langley engineers had a singular purpose: to break the barriers that tie us to terra firma. They did nothing less lay the foundational, the building blocks, the keystones of aeronautics.
They built a series of progressively bigger and faster wind tunnels. In 1934, the world's largest, with a 30 by 60 foot test section, was big enough to test full-scale aircraft.
As the world of aviation was morphing into the world of spaceflight, Langley was again leading the way. In 1945, engineers began launching test rockets from the Wallops Flight Facility.
16,000 launches later, Wallops remains important gateway to space.
I am not much for math—in fact when I lost my arm, my arithmetic capacity was reduced by 50%... or is that 43%?
But I do know about the Collier Trophy: it is the Oscar of aviation. In 1929, Langley engineers were awarded their first of seven Collier Trophies.
Langley was on a roll, but after the war, complacency set in.
It was a new kind of war—a cold one—which turned things around. In 1957, the Soviets launched a basketball-sized satellite named Sputnik and suddenly we were all Chicken Little. But it did kick us into gear and a year later, NACA became NASA.
Langley was there to meet the challenge—we all know this is where the seminal class of astronauts first reported in 1958.
The Mercury Seven were right at home here… the Right Stuff on the land of the Wrights’ stuff.
Langley had become the nation’s de facto space agency. The space race was on.
But the plot thickened...
John Fitzgerald Kennedy—born in Brookline, Massachusetts the same year Langley was founded—issued a bold challenge to beat the Soviets, land astronauts on the Moon and return them safely before the end of 1969.
He issued this challenge a month after Alan Shepard had successfully flown a short suborbital flight. JFK was audacious to the point of downright crazy. But it changed so many things for the better.
As he told a packed crowd in Rice Stadium in September of 1962: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin ever attempted landing on the surface of the Moon, they hung from an odd-looking gantry here at Langley practicing their mettle at the Lunar Landing Research Facility.
Mike Collins perfected his rendezvous and docking maneuvers here as well.
And were it not for the political power of Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn, the iconic catchphrase would likely be: “Hampton, we have a problem.”
But so what if Houston won out? Who needs a bunch of white scarf wearing astronauts to train, feed, flatter, and fawn over? And you thought high performance aircraft were high maintenance? But I digress…
Langley has always focused on breaking barriers in the sky… And, as it turns out, on the ground as well. We all now know the previously unheralded story of some heroes of the space age whose recognition was way overdue.
But the world now knows about the women depicted in Hidden Figures. Katherine Johnson and her colleagues worked tirelessly and boldly to put Americans in space despite living with the injustices of discrimination.
Make no mistake: they were crucial members of an epic team that made the Apollo program such a success. It is their intelligence, hard work, and raw courage that helped topple some of the barriers of racism—right here—while also helping propel astronauts to the Moon.
So what about now?
Today, Langley is deep in the game as NASA looks to extend far beyond low Earth orbit. The Orion capsule gets its sea legs here.
In an age when supercomputers can do so much, wind tunnels are still providing key insights.
And new materials for inflatable habitats developed here are designed to protect humans from the onslaught of radiation on the surface of the Moon or Mars.
But all the talk of Mars masks an underlying problem that we all must confront.
We live in a time when the value of science is being questioned and the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of our universe is being seen as a cost, not an investment.
Think of where we would be if not for those who looked over the horizon and pursued the sky and the stars, the people who put their reputations and their lives on the line to push the envelope.
The day we stop making those bets is the day we begin our decline. I fear that day may be today.
It appears we have reached a time where we’ve forgotten that fundamental science is important. We view it with skepticism. We say we can’t afford it and we ridicule it as frivolous or fake.
We have come to a time when people are more concerned with filling potholes than exploring black holes.
We should be worried.
Science is not something that costs us. Indeed, there is no better investment in our future.
What you all do matters, not just because we want fundamental questions answered, but also because it inspires our children, employs a vast, vibrant enterprise, and collectively lifts our spirits. It allows us to transcend the random, vacuous, tweet-filled moment.
You inspire us. You give our lives meaning.
Yet here we are in one of those complacent moments. What will it take this time to spur us into action? To make us see what should be obvious?
Other nations have cribbed from our playbook and, get this: India and China have seemed to learn what we have unlearned.
Just consider the NASA budget, about $18 billion. That is about what we collectively spend on coffee.
I may not be willing to give up my Starbucks, but I am more than willing to give some bucks to the stars.
And I know you feel the same way. We shouldn’t have to come to the table and beg for crumbs. The return on investment is huge. The space enterprise can stand on its own merits. We can’t be afraid to pound on the table and insist that this is so.
But again, you and I live in this privileged world of wonders, surrounded by smart, like-minded people pursuing bold ideas; our fellow propeller heads and space cadets.
And sometimes it’s easy to forget how special it all is when you’re in that space bubble.
So I challenge you tonight to help do what you can to see that the next hundred years is even more exciting than the first.
Step outside your bubble. Share your stories, your passion, and your excitement for all that you do. Explain how you hope to answer deep fundamental questions about whether we are alone in the universe… And also how your work will make a flight to Cleveland better and safer.
This evening before dinner, I was marveling at the SAGE III Experiment model in the lobby… And just my luck, the guy who built it, Dave Covington, was there.
We got to talking and he said when he was a teenager he had a ‘72 Chevelle but he put a 350 cubic inch, four bolt pickup truck engine in it… I guess you could say it had a favorable force to weight ratio.
He says he never took it over 75 miles an hour because he lived on a farm in rural Virginia and the roads weren’t straight enough. Just as well, because he probably wouldn't be here today if he did.
He said building SAGE was just like that Chevelle: some scavenged parts of the ‘90s cobbled together along, with about 10 feet of extra cable to deal with… he didn't dare cut the cable because it might not work.
It was fascinating to hear him tell that story. It was about space and understanding the atmosphere, but it was also about things we can all relate to: teenagers getting their hands dirty, figuring out how to soup-up their cars.
Those are the kinds of stories that get people’s attention and make them understand and appreciate what you do. So start telling them.
It matters now more than ever. We must all do what we can to ensure the generations that follow will keep carrying the fire.
The stakes aren’t all the marbles… it is actually one marble. A big blue one: our beautiful oasis sitting in the deep, dark void.
Thank you all for inviting me here tonight. I’m deeply honored to call you all my friends.
Banner image credit: NASA.