Academic journal article Air Power History

"The Airplane and I Grew Up Together": Hugh L. Dryden and the Rise of American Aeronautics and Spaceflight

Academic journal article Air Power History

"The Airplane and I Grew Up Together": Hugh L. Dryden and the Rise of American Aeronautics and Spaceflight

Article excerpt

With the exception of a few air and space authors who still remember him, Hugh L. Dryden has all but vanished from history even though he became one of the most influential scientists and administrators in the annals of American aeronautics and spaceflight. His loss seems all the more strange because of the drama and appeal of his personal story: he rose to prominence from genuinely humble origins, against long odds.

Dryden's name actually disappeared on a specific date--on May 13, 2014, from the marquee of a remote location in the Southern California desert administered by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). On that day, a group of employees, prominent politicians, and members of the media met to re-dedicate this place famous for the world's first supersonic and hypersonic flights. President Barack Obama signed the Congressional legislation four months earlier, and on the occasion itself Representative Kevin McCarthy, who wrote the law and represented the district, attended the event. So did the NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and members of the Dryden family, in addition to relatives of the person about to replace Dryden on the signage.

Since 1976, visitors entering this NASA complex saw the words, "Hugh L. Dryden Flight Research Center"; but now, as a result of the changeover, the honor passed to astronaut Neil A. Armstrong. The new nomenclature happened for a good reason; senior officials on-site had pursued it quietly but persistently for many years. After all, it made political sense. Having Neil Armstrong on the letterhead harnessed his charisma and reputation for the center's good. Even 45 years after his celebrated Moon walk, his fame acted as a bulwark against future attempts to cut or close the facility, a protection unlikely with the almost forgotten Hugh Dryden at the entryway.

Yet, the removal of Dryden did not occur in its full and final form on May 13. In order to soften the blow for the Dryden family (represented at the gathering by his grandson Eric and three of his great-grandchildren), the same legislation redesignated the Western Aeronautical Test Range--protected airspace set aside for the center to conduct research on aircraft and spacecraft--as the Hugh L. Dryden Aeronautical Test Range.

Although well-meaning, this gesture did nothing in the long-term to preserve Hugh Dryden. Indeed, the events of May 2014 stemmed from a precedent that predicted Dryden's demise. In 1999, Congress voted to re-christen the NASA Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, as the John H. Glenn Research Center, in recognition of the famous astronaut and U.S. Senator. Until that time it had honored George W. Lewis, the first director of NASA's predecessor organization, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Almost as an afterthought, and to appease Lewis' admirers, the lawmakers added the words "at Lewis Field" to the end of the new name. Despite that courtesy, in the years since NASA Glenn came into being George Lewis has almost completely faded from the public mind. (1)

As instructive as the switch from Lewis to Glenn may be, the re-branding of Dryden as Armstrong has far more historical impact. As the NACA's leader, Lewis oversaw important experimental work that improved the first generations of military and commercial aircraft. But his span of influence and technical achievements fall far short of Dryden's, rendering the events of May 2014 of much greater consequence than those of 1999.

At the same time, the recent re-labeling raises perplexing questions. If Dryden did play such a decisive role in twentieth century aeronautics and spaceflight, why has he become nearly unknown in the twenty-first century? And why is it more than likely that he will recede completely now that no specific institution commemorates him? The answers he partly in when he lived and died, partly in his personal make-up, and partly in situations over which he had no say. …

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