THE U.S. Air Force is many things: young men in airplanes, bases scattered around the earth, schools and radars and stocks of bombs. But it is also an army of scientific pioneers who push out the frontiers of knowledge on dozens of fronts. This scientific army is never at peace; it probes the top of the atmosphere and measures the shape of the earth. Its weapons are drawing boards, wind tunnels, computers, rockets and vacuum tubes. It can never slow down. To keep the U.S. ahead in the race for air power requires daring imagination and the continual skillful use of fantastic equipment.
Few Americans notice the scientific airmen. Most of those who are stationed near population centers work in ordinary-looking laboratories. Their projects are quiet ones: electronics, meteorology, untangling the scrambled figures that come from field experiments. Some of these are hard to believe. The Air Force Research Center at Cambridge, Mass., for instance, has a program for mapping mountains on the moon, an operation seemingly unconnected with flight on earth.*
Far off on deserts, in forests and on snow-covered mountaintops, the scientific shock troops toss rockets out of the atmosphere or study the performance of dangerous experimental airplanes. Some of these men seldom touch aircraft, "inhabited" or "uninhabited." With weird telescopic cameras, they photograph the trails of meteors, measure the night glow of the sky or the brightness of searchlight beams pointed toward the stars. All these methods give information about the high atmosphere, where future aircraft will fly.
Nerve Center. Official headquarters of the Air Research and Development Command is at Baltimore, but the technical nerve center is Wright Air Development Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton. It dates, under various names, back to World War I, and has grown into a massive tangle of intricate equipment. It tests everything from pin-head-size transistors to heavy bombers, loading them with weights or twisting their wings with tension devices. Turbojet engines, ramjets and rocket motors bellow on test stands like prehistoric monsters.
Less spectacular but not less important gadgets measure the performance of fabrics, plastics, ceramics, alloys and an endless assortment of the electrical nerves and senses that proliferate through modern aircraft. Helicopter rotors spin in test cells that look like oil storage tanks; wind tunnels roar and rumble, solving the endless problems of aerodynamics.
The human body is also tested. Wright whirls men in centrifuges, spinning them like tops, measuring their reaction to violent aircraft motions. It also devises ejection seats, life rafts and survival equipment to bring them back alive when their aircraft fails. More advanced work of this sort is done at the School of Aviation Medicine, Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, where specialized physiologists try to adapt fragile-fleshed man to the hostile conditions of high-altitude, high-speed flight. One of their tools is a low-pressure chamber where men in space-cadet pressure suits try to keep at work, while a near-vacuum sucks at their flesh and tries to boil their blood.