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Byline: Jim Skeen Staff Writer

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE - Hugh L. Dryden, the quiet Maryland Methodist who helped launch the X-15 rocket plane program and oversaw America's early manned space flights, is a favorite discussion topic for NASA historian Michael Gorn.

An author of aviation history books and a former historian for the Air Force and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Gorn is at work on a biography of Dryden, hoping to have the book ready for publication in 2006, the 60th anniversary of the NASA research center named after Dryden.

``I was writing a book on Theodore von Karman, the founder of JPL (the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and one of the most important scientists of aeronautics in the 20th century, and Dryden's name kept coming up again and again,'' Gorn said. ``His fingerprints are on everything.''

Yet, Gorn said, Dryden never sought recognition.

``He didn't seek to have his name associated with anything,'' Gorn said.

Although quiet, Dryden was a warm man. He was deeply religious and an excellent sermonizer, Gorn said.

``He knew how to counsel someone both professionally and personally,'' Gorn said.

Dryden was born July 2, 1898, in Pocomoke City, Md. He grew up in Baltimore where his father was a streetcar operator.

A brilliant student and a math prodigy, Dryden graduated from high school at 15.

``He wanted to go to a seminary school, but they wouldn't take a 15- year-old,'' Gorn said.

So he went to Johns Hopkins University, where he completed a 4-year bachelor of arts degree in three years. By age 20, he had earned a doctorate from Johns Hopkins.

The first 30 years of his government career were spent working for the National Bureau of Standards, now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Dryden developed a method for measuring the air turbulence that played havoc with the data collected inside wind tunnels. This led to improvements in wind tunnels, allowing for such advancements as the laminar wing design for the P-51 Mustang fighter used in World War II.

Dryden also wrote papers on what happens to air around an object flying at the speed of sound, about 700 mph. This was at a time when the fastest airplane traveled about 230 mph, Gorn said.

During World War II, Dryden led the development of the BAT missile, a bomb that could be steered by radio control - a sort of smart bomb for the 1940s. The BAT went into service toward the end of the war at the battle of Okinawa and sank several Japanese ships.

After the war, Dryden worked with JPL founder Karman in reviewing aeronautical advances resulting from the war. In that role, Dryden traveled around the world, interviewing scientists, gathering technical papers, and even bringing back a complete Swiss wind tunnel.

In September 1947, Dryden was selected as the second, and last, director of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics.

At the time of his appointment, a small cadre of NACA researchers were working on the X-1 rocket plane with the Air Force on what was then known as Muroc Army Air Base. The NACA station on Muroc, now Edwards Air Force Base, would later become Dryden Flight Research Center.

``He visited Muroc within the first three weeks of his becoming director,'' Gorn said. ``It (the NACA station) became a permanent station as a result of Dryden. He gave this place its birth certificate.''

During his tenure with NACA, Dryden helped launch the X-15 rocket plane program in part by using his network of friends in the military to attract the Air Force's collaboration.

``He was the godfather of the X-15,'' Gorn said. ``He brought together the resources necessary to make it happen.''

In 1958, in the wake of the Soviet Union's launch of the satellite Sputnik, NACA was folded into the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Dryden had thought he might be in line for the job of leading the new agency, but that went instead to Keith Glennan. Gorn doesn't believe Dryden was ever a candidate for the post, in part, because the Soviets' head start in the space race had unfairly tarnished Dryden's reputation.

Dryden became the agency's deputy administrator.

``Glennan didn't have the technical expertise,'' Gorn said. ``Glennan told Eisenhower he won't take the job without Dryden.''

Dryden would continue to serve in the deputy administrator's post when Glennan was replaced by James Webb in 1961.

Dryden served as deputy administrator overseeing the technical aspect of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs until his death from lung cancer in 1965. Dryden was a nonsmoker.

``That was a time when people smoked in meetings,'' Gorn said. ``His secretary told me she thought it was from second-hand smoke.''

For the past two years, Gorn has served as chief historian for Dryden Flight Research Center. Before coming to Dryden, Gorn wrote a book called ``Expanding the Envelope: Flight Research at NACA and NASA,'' and co-authored an update of the book ``On the Frontier: Experimental Flight at NASA Dryden.''

Gorn has spent 25 years as a historian, working for the Air Force, including serving as deputy chief historian, and for the Environmental Protection Agency.


2 photos


(1 -- 2) Michael Gorn, left, is researching Hugh L. Dryden's crucial role in flight research. In this 1964 photo, right, NASA officials Paul F. Bikle, left, and Walter Williams, right, stand with deputy administrator Hugh L. Dryden, whose research helped shape U.S. aeronautics.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 25, 2003

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