Filed Under Science

The John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field

Cleveland's aeronautical and rocket laboratory provided a critical boost for moon-bound astronauts during the 1960s.

The NASA Glenn Research Center opened west of Cleveland, adjacent to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, in 1941. Initially called the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory, the facility first served as a National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) research laboratory and was responsible for key aeronautic jet propulsion advancements during World War II. During this period, using wind tunnel testing, NACA developed airfoil shapes for wings and propellers, which simplified aircraft design. The shapes eventually found their way into the designs of many U.S. aircraft of the time, including a number of important World War II-era aircraft, such as the P-51 Mustang.

NACA existed since World War I and responded primarily to military aviation needs and challenges. The success of the Cleveland lab earned it a bright future with the advent of rocketry initiatives during the post war years. Abe Silverstein was appointed Director of Research for the lab in 1949. Over several years, he organized the program, personnel, and facility to focus upon guided rocket propulsion and the development of hydrogen and nuclear fuels for rockets. In 1957, the laboratory was recognized as a leader in these systems and the October launch of Sputnik propelled America’s entry into the space race powered by the rocketry work at the lab and at Plumbrook—a partner facility near Sandusky, Ohio.

In October, 1958 a legislative act was passed creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). As a result, the facility was absorbed by NASA and renamed the NASA Lewis Research Center in honor of George Lewis, NACA’s Director of Aeronautical Research. NACA and its missions and projects were incorporated into the new agency. The new agency would be responsible for civilian human, satellite, and robotic space programs, as well as aeronautical research. Abe Silverstein joined NASA headquarters in Washington and brought broad influence upon formative NASA policies and projects. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Lewis Research Center built and utilized the Rocket Engine Test Facility (RETF) to conduct experiments and develop technologies in support of the space program for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs to reach the moon and the ensuing STS (Space Shuttle) program. The center played an important role in perfecting the use of liquid hydrogen upper stage rocket fuel used in the space missions leading to the lunar landings beginning in 1969.

Completed in 1966, the Zero Gravity Research Facility (Zero-G) at Lewis has also been utilized in support of space flight components and fluid systems in a weightless or microgravity environment. The Zero-G is a ground based microgravity facility, the largest of its kind in the world. It is one of two 432 feet drop towers located at NASA Glenn. The facility is currently used by NASA-funded researchers from around the world to study the effects of microgravity on physical phenomena such as combustion and fluid physics, to develop and demonstrate new technology for future space missions, and to develop and test experiment hardware designed for flight aboard the International Space Station and future spacecraft.

The RETF earned a National Historic Landmark designation in 1984 to acknowledge its developments during the space missions of the 70’s and 80’s. However, neighboring airport expansion forced its closure in 1995 and demolition in 2003, and the withdrawal of its National Historic Landmark. The Zero-G, however, continues to hold the designation of a National Historic Landmark. In 1999, the Lewis Research Center was renamed NASA John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field in honor of Ohio Senator John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the earth. Today, NASA Glenn Research Center continues to conduct experiments to support the aeronautics and aerospace industries.


A Cold War Romance Pat Stanzel describes how Cold War era security precautions at NASA Glenn Research Center led to her meeting her future husband. Source: CSU Center for Public History + Digital Humanities


Arial View of the Lewis Center, 1958 When the NACA evolved into NASA in 1958, the hangar roof was repainted. The laboratory grew in size and purpose to support the space program in the United States. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections Date: 1958
Breaking Ground, 1941 Government officials break ground for the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory west of Cleveland in January 1941. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections Date: 1941
The Supersonic Wind Tunnel, 1962 The supersonic wind tunnel facility provides researchers with the opportunity to explore higher speed regions of flight. It is NASA’s only transonic propulsion wind tunnel and has been actively involved in research testing for over 65 years. This facility has been used to enhance the nation’s aeronautics program serving industry, academia, and NASA in-house efforts. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections Date: 1962
The Cyclotron at Lewis Research Center, 1958 A cyclotron is a particle accelrator used to split atoms. It was used in the testing of power systems being designed for use on space shuttles. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections Date: 1958
Arial view of the RETF The RETF was completed in 1957 and was the largest test facility in the U.S. It was capable of handling liquid hydrogen and other high-energy liquid fuels. The experimental nature of the testing that took place at RETF required its location on 10 acres of land a safe distance away from the other facilities at NASA Lewis Research Center. Source: NASA Date: 1977
Cutaway view of the RETF at the Lewis Research Laboratory Built on a hilllside to accomodate its design, the RETF was utilized to test propulsion systems until the mid 1990's. Airport runway expansion forced its demise and demolition by 2003. Source: NASA Date: 1985
The Zero Gravity Research Facility The vertical vacuum tank used to conduct microgravity experiments extends nearly 500 feet below ground level. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections Date: 1966
Arial View of Lewis Center, 1981 The Lewis Reseaarch Center Campus had grown significantly throughout the years of manned spce flight to the moon and the Space Shuttle programs. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections Date: 1981


21000 Brookpark Rd, Cleveland, OH 44135 | The Glenn Research Center offers monthly public tours (April-October) by registration. Some restrictions apply. Visit for details. Additionally, the Great Lakes Science Center is home to the NASA Glenn Visitor Center, one of only 11 such centers in the U.S. For more information, visit


Jim Lanese, “The John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field,” Cleveland Historical, accessed January 23, 2022,