NASA celebrated the lives and legacies of Hugh Dryden and Neil Armstrong as the Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center was dedicated May 13.
The center, formerly known as the Hugh L. Dryden Flight Research Center, will continue to bear the aviation pioneer’s name at the Dryden Aeronautical Test Range, formerly known as the Western Aeronautical Test Range.
Much of the world remembers Armstrong, who worked as a research test pilot before joining the NASA astronaut corps. In 1969, Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Dryden, whose name has marked the facility for the last 38 years, was the director of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics from 1949 to 1958. He also served as the first deputy administrator for NASA.
Though the center bore the name of Dryden for many years, changing the center’s name is nothing new. In fact, the center has undergone no less than 10 name changes since it was established in 1946.
The ceremony in Hangar 4802 featured comments from NASA leadership, dignitaries and members of the Armstrong and Dryden families. Neil Armstrong’s granddaughter, Kali Armstrong, took the stage with Edwards AFB’s Blue Eagle Honor Guard for the posting of the colors and sang the national anthem accompanied by acoustic guitar.
Following the ceremony, guests assembled outside for a NASA F-18 flyby and the unveiling of the new Bldg. 4800 sign.
“Dryden prepared America for the space age and remains one of the world’s pivotal figures in both aeronautics and space flight,” said David McBride, NASA Armstrong Center director. “When asked about the value of flight research, with respect to the X-15 program, he stated that the purpose is to separate the real from the imagined and make known the overlooked and unexpected.”
Though the center’s name has changed, their vision and mission will remain the same, to separate the real from the imagined and advancing technology and science through flight.
“We will maintain and recommit to the agencies vision and mission, researching for new heights and revealing the unknown for the benefit of humankind and driving the advances of science and technology and space exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality and stewardship of Earth,” said McBride.
California State Senator Steve Knight, 21st District, is “no stranger” to Edwards and the X-15 program. In his presentation of the California State Senate resolution, Knight quoted his father who used to say, “These are the good old days.”
“Nobody exemplifies that more than Neil Armstrong, from what he did and probably one of the most successful platforms that NASA’s ever had, to his one small step, Neil Armstrong made America, and I say that not lightly,” said Knight. “What we did in the 60s and what he accomplished put us on the map and showed what American ingenuity is.”
The resolution, HR 667, that redesignated the center, was signed into law, January 16, 2014, by President Barack Obama. According to the congressman behind the change, Kevin McCarthy, 23rd Congressional District, the decision was unanimous.
McCarthy shared that he was “taken” by Armstrong’s comments about NASA when he said, “My years here were wonderful years. Dryden was a most unusual place, its enormous curiosity, wonderful intensity and unbelievable willingness to attempt the impossible here.”
NASA Administrator, Charlie Bolden, has served a 34-year career with the Marine Corps, which included 14 years as a member of the NASA astronaut office. After joining the office, he travelled orbit four times aboard the space shuttle between 1986 and 1994, commanding two of those missions.
“Hugh Dryden was considered an aeronautical genius who pushed the boundaries of high speed flight beginning in 1931,” said Bolden.”His organizational leadership was at the root of Neil Armstrong’s most spectacular flight achievements from the X-15 to his 1969 first footsteps on the moon.”
Throughout their careers, Bolden believes that Armstrong and Dryden were not thinking of themselves, but of the “distant future.”
“I know Hugh Dryden would be amazed at the range of activities this center is involved in now,” Bolden said. “Neil Armstrong would be proud to be so intimately connected to this center where he served as a research pilot from 1955 to1962 and was part of the team that conceptualized and tested the lunar landing training vehicle.”
Eric Dryden was only five months old when his grandfather, Hugh Dryden died. Eric made his first trip to the research center with his wife and three children for the Armstrong renaming ceremony.
“I do know [my grandfather] would be extremely proud and honored to pass the torch, so to speak, to an amazing engineer, test pilot, astronaut, true aerospace pioneer – Neil Armstrong,” said Eric.
Neil Armstrong’s sons, Mark and Rick, also attended the ceremony.
“In [the 1930s] a brilliant mathematician and aerodynamics researcher by the name of Hugh Dryden became a member of the National Advisor Commission for Aeronautics,” said Mark.
It was around that same time, that a young Neil Armstrong was learning to build model airplanes out of paper and balsa wood. From that time on, Armstrong and Hugh would share the same goal – to design airplanes that would go higher and faster and with greater stability and control.
“So you see, it is right and good that these two men should be inextricably linked,” said Mark.
His brother, Rick, shared that the renaming touches on two of Armstrong’s passions, flying and engineering.
Then Rick shared a memory from his youth. On his father’s desk, at their home in Houston, sat a collection of model airplanes. Among them, was a white block on a stick with an inscription that read, “L/D=0.”
When 10-year-old Rick inquired about the block, his father said, “That means it flies like a brick.” Though Rick did not understand it at the time, the memory today reminds him that Neil Armstrong considered himself an engineer first, rather than a pilot or astronaut.
“In one speech [my father] said science is about what is, engineering is about what can be,” said Rick.
Both Mark and Rick learned from their father, who died Aug. 25, 2012, that accomplishing “what can be” requires a team. In fact, it wasn’t until the family left their Houston home that the brothers realized their father’s world-wide recognition and the risks involved in the work he did.
“I think [his historical significance] crept up on me,” said Mark. “In Houston, in the neighborhood where I grew up, everyone worked for NASA, doctors and engineers and mission control folks and astronauts were all mixed together. Everyone was working towards the same goal and everyone had an important job.”
Rick added, “It just seemed normal. I think it’s the same as the people who work here, doing flight stuff here, I think when they grow up with it, that’s all they know so it doesn’t seem like any particular big deal and you don’t have that perception that you’re famous.”
When people see Neil Armstrong’s name associated with the center, both brothers hope that they will be inspired to be the best they can be.
“We’ve heard from a lot of people that dad inspired them in one way or another and he inspired them to do very impressive things,” said Mark. “It’s our hope that his name being associated with this center will continue to do that for many years to come.”