A Lucky Disaster, or Canada’s Loss, NASA’s Gain (Part 2)

Also see PART 1 of “A Lucky Disaster, or Canada’s Loss, NASA’s Gain.”

AVRO Arrow (Creative Commons)

For the last 40 years, at least in the public’s eyes, Florida’s Space Coast and Houston have been the homes of American manned space flight. But in the earliest days of America’s space program, a select group of engineers calling themselves the Space Task Group (STG) made their home in rural Virginia at the Langley Research Center. Langley is NASA’s oldest research home, founded in 1917 by NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (just as you would think, NACA). The STG at Langley, inaugurated on November 5, 1958, came into existence little more than a month after NACA became NASA. These name changes and group birthings were all of a piece. Forty-five years ago, the nation was obsessed with space—and the nation remains intrigued.

In our February 20th post, we hinted that the February 20th, 1959, cancellation of AVRO’s CF-105 Arrow aircraft—less than six months after NASA was itself born—wound up being a boon for America’s fledgling space program. America’s first human spaceflight program, Project Mercury, was announced to the world six days after NASA was born, but that ambitious program was struggling to get its legs under it. The STG, with its single-minded view of putting an American in space, also had trouble finding its footing and was viewed with skepticism by the airplanes-only culture of Langley’s old guard.

Sputnik (NASA)

Aeronautics was becoming Aerospace, but not everyone was excited by the changes that this shift implied. In part, resistance was only logical. The American aviation industry had achieved remarkable successes since the end of World War II. The nascent American efforts in space didn’t have a record of success. Not only had the Russians beaten the Americans into space with Sputnik, but they had done it spectacularly. Sputnik had been followed less than a month later by Sputnik-2, and that second Sputnik had carried a living creature, a dog named Laika. America’s side of the space-race equation was also spectacular, but mostly spectacular failures. The nationally televised explosion of America’s first attempted satellite launch—the Vanguard mission on December 6, 1957—earned it the derisive nickname Kaputnik.

Into this environment came the opportunity for NASA’s STG to add significant engineering talent. Arguably, AVRO’s Arrow was the most advanced aircraft in active engineering and development at that time, and it was cancelled. The United States’ most advanced interceptor aircraft of that moment, the North American Aviation XF-108 Rapier—with delta wings and predicted Mach 3 performance, it was quite similar to the Arrow—was also cancelled in 1959. Both were victims of the coming age of ballistic missiles and pushbutton warfare. But whereas the American XF-108 project was limited to engineering drawings and a single wooden mock-up, the CF-105 Arrow knew the feel of air beneath its wings.

In all, AVRO designed, manufactured, and flight-tested six Arrow aircraft. This effort had given a talented young cadre of AVRO engineers experience at the leading edge of aeronautical engineering. The Arrow was the first aircraft designed to use a fly-by-wire system, a means of controlling the aircraft’s flight surfaces with electronic systems. The Arrow was designed in great part on computers. An IBM 704 mainframe computer at AVRO Canada’s headquarters in Malton, Ontario (near Toronto), was used not only for design purposes, but also for simulation and modeling. In fact, data collected during the Arrow flight test program was analyzed on the 704 and then fed back into the simulator. In sum, the young AVRO engineers had just the sort of experience that NASA’s STG needed for Project Mercury.

(NASA)

Ultimately, the AVRO engineers wound up in the STG because of the Arrow’s chief designer, Jim Chamberlin. Chamberlin was a known quantity to engineers at Langley from the collaborative work between AVRO and NACA on wind-tunnel testing for the Arrow and because of an earlier project, the AVRO VZ-9 Car (a saucer shaped jet).

As the layoffs took hold, Chamberlin and others jumped into action. Arrows to the Moon, a comprehensive look by author Chris Gainor of the contributions that AVRO engineers made to the American space program, indicates that the original idea was for a two-year exchange that would bring engineers from the cancelled Arrow project to the STG at Langley. NASA benefited by getting an immediate injection of talent for Project Mercury. AVRO hoped to get returns from sending its best-and-brightest off for two years for the equivalent of a graduate degree, a U.S.-funded, on-the-job school that was essentially the only program in space systems design and engineering in the free world.

When all was said and done, 32 AVRO engineers joined the STG. Another fantastic book that touches on this subject, Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox’s Apollo: The Race to the Moon, recounts a story in which Robert Gilruth, first head of the STG, told one of the AVRO engineers, Tec Roberts, “We thought about taking more of your crowd from AVRO…but we figured twenty-five percent aliens in the American space program was sufficient.”

Those aliens would make contributions to the American space program that are still being felt to this this day.

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