The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is a U.S. civilian federal agency founded in 1958, but the successor to the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) founded in 1915. NASA extended NACA’s mission to, and focused primarily on, space exploration. While continuing research into terrestrial air travel, NASA directed the United States manned space effort and interplanetary probes and has supported astronomical and cosmological research.
NASA’s impact on American air and space technology cannot be overstated, but the agency itself does not design aircraft and spacecraft. Generally these, like the famous X- series of experimental aircraft starting with the sound-barrier-breaking X-1, are contracted to private manufacturers. Sometimes, however, NASA either modifies existing aircraft or does basic design in-house. The aircraft shown on this page are ones in which NASA has significant involvement and for which no other aerospace company can be identified as the originator.
HL-20 Personnel Launch System
A number of Earth-orbiting space stations were planned during the 1980s and 1990s. NASA began exploring the concept of a reusable crew-ferrying vehicle for use with such stations. The idea was something like the Space Shuttle Orbiter in that it was a reusable vehicle that would be launched by expendable rockets and return to Earth on its own, but smaller and less versatile. NASA’s plan was to use “lifting body” technology, in which an aircraft has small or no wings but the shape of the fuselage is designed in such a way as to create lift and support flight while in the atmosphere. This mock-up of the concept was created by NASA’s Langley Research Center in 1990. “HL” stood for “horizontal lander.” No flyable version of the HL-20 was ever built, but its design continues to influence similar concepts for a low-cost, reusable small crew replenishment vehicle. The mockup is displayed at the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum.