Heroes of Space: Hugh L. Dryden

The unsung hero who built NASA into the world’s greatest space agency.


Dryden, pictured here in 1958, was hugely influential in the formation of NASA.

Dryden, pictured here in 1958, was hugely influential in the formation of NASA.

From the early days of NASA there are many names that elicit great admiration, from Armstrong to von Braun. But perhaps none is as underappreciated as that of Hugh L. Dryden who, unbeknownst to many, quietly and steadfastly dictated the rise of NASA up until his last days and ensured that the agency would have a sound footing to stand on.

Hugh Latimer Dryden was born on 2 July 1898 in Maryland, USA where he spent the majority of his youth, moving from Pocomoke City to Baltimore during the financial crisis of 1907 when his father lost his job. From an early age it was apparent that Dryden was gifted; he excelled at mathematics and graduated from high school at the age of just 14. By the age of 22, he held a Ph.D. in physics and mathematics and was the director of the Aerodynamics Division at the National Bureau of Standards.

His aptitude with mathematics and aerodynamics saw him become a member of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor agency to NASA, in 1939, and ten years later he was NACA’s director. During his time at NACA he oversaw, amongst other things, the hugely successful X-15 rocket plane programme.

With the launch of the Soviet Sputnik 1 satellite on 4 October 1957 the American space programme, and the lack of a dedicated space agency, shot to the top of the national agenda. Dryden was vilified in the press for allowing the Soviets to beat the Americans into space, something that had been completely out of his control. Over the next 12 months, while the appropriate response to Sputnik 1 was decided upon, Dryden would ultimately be deprived of his desired role of leadership at the new American space agency despite his obvious qualifications and experience.

NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center was renamed in Dryden's honour.

NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center was renamed in Dryden’s honour.

His disappointment was all the greater as he had been pivotal in the creation of this new agency. In 1958 many existing governmental agencies, including the Air Force and the Army, were vying for control of the nation’s space missions, but Dryden lobbied extensively for NACA to form the core of a civilian space agency rather than a militaristic one. On 1 October 1958 his efforts proved successful with NACA becoming the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA. President Eisenhower, however, nominated the then President of the Case Institute of Technology Thomas Glennan, rather than Dryden, as NASA’s first Administrator. Glennan accepted on one condition: that Hugh L. Dryden served as his deputy.

Glennan relied hugely on Dryden, as he not only knew every faucet of the former NACA but also had contacts around the world. Dryden oversaw the transformation of NACA into a national space agency, acquiring many programmes from elsewhere to ensure that NASA would become a worldwide leader in space exploration including the Air Force’s F-1 rocket engine and the Saturn rocket programme. His aim was to achieve three goals for NASA: scientific missions, satellite programmes and manned exploration. He also recognised the importance of international cooperation rather than competition and held talks with the UK, Canada and even the Soviet Union.

He worked tirelessly behind the scenes while Glennan, and later James Webb, took both the flak and the praise from the public as Administrator, ensuring that NASA was ready for its first manned space programme Project Mercury and, ultimately, the manned Apollo missions to the Moon. Having hidden an illness for many years, however, he eventually died of cancer on 2 December 1965 before he could see the fruits of his labours when the first Moon landings began. On 26 March 1976, the NASA Flight Research Center was renamed the NASA Hugh L. Dryden Flight Research Center in his honour, a lasting legacy to the man without whom NASA as we know it today would not have existed.

Images courtesy of NASA

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