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Wayne Hale's NASA Blog: The Radical Wrights

Status Report From: NASA Blogs
Posted: Friday, December 19, 2008

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Yesterday was the 105th anniversary of the Wright brother's first flight and I thought all evening about their accomplishment. I dug out my dog-eared copy of Tom Crouch's excellent biography "The Bishop's Boys" and read a few paragraphs. Whenever I can, I visit the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum on the national mall to see the second floor room where the "Flyer" is enshrined.

The Wright brothers are held to be the penultimate real-life historical proof that Horatio Alger was right; hard work, ingenuity, and courage can lead to success, fame, and fortune.

Or maybe not.

There were a huge number of people working on the problem of heavier than air flight in the early 20th century. There are competing claims from supporters of many of those early inventers that some of them "beat" the Wright brothers to achieve the first flight. None of these claims hold up under scrutiny however. If the Wright brothers had not existed, or had been happy to be merely bicycle makers, someone else would have flow -- the only question is how much later. Based on my study, it probably would have been quite a lot later. Literally everybody else was pursuing the dead end of making a perfectly stable aircraft. Today we know that is impossible. The Wright brothers had a different idea: to build a purposely unstable aircraft with adequate controls to allow a human to manage that instability. Of course that is not all, but imagine the consequences if the Wright brothers had not pursued their inherently unstable aircraft idea. What would have happened during WWI with no aircraft? No Red Baron, no Eddie Rickenbaker, no Hermann Goering, no Billy Mitchell, at least not as we know them today. Only tethered balloons for artillery spotters -- not much different than the American Civil War -- and the Zeppelins. If the invention of the airplane had been delayed by 20 years, would Charles Lindberg Ameila Earhart be remembered today? And would the Japanese Imperial Navy have built aircraft carriers by 1941? History would have been different in ways that we cannot even imagine.

Yet the Wright brothers succeeded because of a confluence of time, capabilities, and events. If Octave Chanute had not published his work, if internal combustion engines had not sufficiently developed to generate 12 horsepower from an engine weighing less than 150 pounds, if Bishop Milton Wright had not bought a 50 cent Penaud helicopter toy to bring home to his sons to play with, if the brothers had given up after the failure of their 1901 kite when Wilbur wrote "Not within a thousand years would man ever fly", if, if, if, if any of a thousand events had unfolded differently, what would have happened?

The Wright brothers invention succeeded because they were the right people with the right knowledge at the right time in history -- and because they worked really hard at making their dream a success.

In retrospect, history looks deterministic. Everything happened as it was supposed to. Events unfolded according to some cosmic plan. In reality, we make our own history. Decisions every day determine what the future will be. Edmund Burke's words ought to ring in our ears: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

Recently there have been a spate of commentators that have decried our national plan to explore space as unrealistic. That may be a topic for serious debate. But one argument that they have advanced is nonsense. The argument that Apollo was successful and could have only happened because of the historical influences of the times, and since the times and world events are different, the successor to Apollo cannot happen today.

Certainly the times and events influenced Apollo and the moon landings and caused certain decisions to be made in certain ways; events may have moved faster or slower had events been different. All that I grant you. But to leap from the historical record to the conclusion that no large national (or international!) exploration of space can take place today because the times are different is unwarranted.

This is a time when there is a confluence of capabilities and events. All that is required is that innovative people work really hard to achieve their dreams.

And in that way, these times are no different from 1969 or 1903.

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