Revolutionary Atmosphere, NASA SP 2010-4319

  • Published
Revolutionary Atmosphere, NASA SP 2010-4319 by Robert S. Arrighi. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2010, 412 pp.

On the surface, Revolutionary Atmosphere is the history of the Altitude Wind Tunnel (AWT), built during World War II as the centerpiece of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics'(NACA) new Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory (later the Lewis Research Center and currently the Glenn Research Center), and then modified as a space vacuum chamber to test components for the US space program. In the process, this book also illustrates the rapid postwar advance of US air and space technology, evolution of the NACA into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the rise of the US space program.

The AWT was conceived after NACA and Army Air Corps experts toured German aeronautics research facilities in the late 1930s. With enthusiastic backing from Gen Henry "Hap" Arnold, NACA leadership successfully lobbied for a wholesale expansion of the committee's test capabilities, including an engine research complex in the aircraft-component manufacturing center of Cleveland, Ohio. The AWT was originally designed to meet the challenge of ground-testing large piston engines under realistic high-altitude conditions.

Completed in 1943, the AWT served its original purpose for only a few years, most notably supporting modifications to the B-29's fire-prone R-3350 engine. Very rapidly, though, work shifted to research and development of jet engines, starting with the first British Whittle engine installed in the Bell P-59. The AWT tested nearly every jet engine developed in the United States up through 1957 and conducted pioneering research on afterburners and variablegeometry nozzles.

In 1959 the AWT was decommissioned as a wind tunnel and modified to house a multiaxis control trainer for the Mercury program. Two years later, it again underwent modifications to test rocket upper stages and spacecraft payloads in very high altitude and vacuum environments. Renamed the Space Power Chambers (SPC) in this role, the facility supported development, build out, and launch of space research payloads powered by the Atlas-Centaur until 1975. Rendered obsolete by larger and more modern NASA and Air Force facilities, the SPC was mothballed afterwards and eventually torn down in 2007.

Author Robert Arrighi, a contract historian at NASA Glenn Research Center, has published extensively on the center's history and its facilities. Along with the book, he created a DVD chronicling the history of the AWT as well as an interactive web page and illustrated online tour aimed at educators (see http://awt.grc.nasa.gov/). Typical of most NASA history publications with which the reviewer is familiar, the book is written very matter of factly and heavily illustrated with black-and-white photographs drawn from NASA's archives. Unfortunately, as is also typical of most NASA histories, the photo reproduction is mediocre and doesn't do the originals justice, but the same photographs in better quality can be found on the AWT web page. The first chapter provides a brief description of the NACA's role in US aeronautics development in the 1920s and 1930s, together with an overview of how wind tunnels fit into aeronautical research--essential background for casual readers if they are to appreciate the rest of the book. Although not light reading, Revolutionary Atmosphere offers a unique peek into a dynamic and inspiring time in US aviation history.

Col Jamie Sculerati, USAF, Retired
Land O'Lakes, Florida

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."