Space Program Needs the Wright Stuff

A hundred years ago, two airplane scientists took off and landed a heavier-than-aircraft, inaugurating the past century of powered flight.

On that chilly December morning on the Atlantic dunes of North Carolina, looking at the fragile 40-foot box kite, with its noisy gasoline engine, a man lying gingerly on the lower wing, tugging at control wires, few if any of those present could have imagined where it would lead in the coming decades. The notion of a man flying solo far beyond the dunes, across the Atlantic less than a quarter of a century later, of aircraft releasing tons of bombs over European and Japanese cities, setting them ablaze in firestorms killing tens of thousands, of aircraft that split the air at speeds so fast that sound could not keep up, of jumbo airliners with wingspans longer than that first flight, carrying millions of people all over the world every year, or with cargo compartments carrying nothing but fresh-cut flowers--all of these would have seemed notions fantastical.

Perhaps, had they had an inkling of the events they were setting in motion, and powers they were unleashing, the brothers Wright, devout sons of a midwest Bishop, would have hesitated themselves.

But probably not. Like all pioneers, successful or otherwise, they were risk takers. They would have had no fear of the future that they were ushering in--after all, they had no fear even of losing their own lives, at least not enough so to hinder their progress, though they knew that others had died in similar attempts, and even been inspired by them.

They had a competitor, though--one who was risk averse, and partly because of that, he failed. It should be no surprise that he was funded by the U.S. government.

Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley had successfully built small unmanned flyers. On the basis of this work, he was provided with a grant from the War Department of $50,000 (which was matched by the Smithsonian Institution, of which he was the Secretary). There were many flaws in his approach, but a major one was his unwillingness to do flight tests over land. Instead, he devoted a large amount of his budget to building a houseboat that could launch his craft over water via catapult.

Though his aircraft almost certainly wasn't capable of flying anyway, due to numerous design flaws arising from a lack of understanding of aerodynamics, the problem was compounded by the fact that it couldn't sustain the acceleration loads of the catapult. On both flight attempts, weeks before the Wrights' success, it underwent severe damage from the launcher, and on the second attempt was nearly destroyed, plunging the remains into the icy Potomac River and almost drowning the pilot.

Of course, the real risk aversion, as always, was on the part of the government. On paper, Professor Langley looked like a good bet, compared to the Wrights. He seemed qualified--after all, he was a professor, while they had no college at all. He had built flying machines--they had only built bicycles. It was only natural that the government would lay their bet on who they perceived to be the best horse in the race--they had to safeguard the taxpayers' money, after all--they couldn't go gambling it on unknowns with dangerous and crazy notions.

But there's another, almost inevitable symptom of risk aversion that plagued Professor Langley's project as well as many government-funded projects today.

In Greek mythology, it was said that Minerva sprung fully formed, in full armor, from the head of Zeus.

Unfortunately, that often seems to be the goal of government agencies as well. A long, drawn-out program, with many incremental tests, offers many opportunities for test failures with their attendant bad publicity and potential for embarrassing congressional hearings. Moreover, the risk of such failures is increased if there is inadequate analysis before committing to hardware--hardware made all the more expensive by attempting to minimize the risk of failure, thus making any possible failure more expensive as well.

This leads to a vicious cycle of spending money to prevent failure which in turn increases the cost of the failure, which in turn results in further expenditures of funding for analysis and increased reliability, which in turn...

Professor Langley's Aerodrome was an example of this, in which he went directly (after analysis, though not good analysis, even given the paucity of aerodynamics knowledge of the times) from small-scale models to a full-scale powered manned vehicle, with no intermediate steps.

The Wrights, in contrast, slowly developed and understood each aspect of the problem, testing as they went, with many failures, but with lessons learned from each one. So, when they rolled out their powered version of their glider, in which they had many hours of flight experience, they could have some confidence that they were adding only one new element to the mix, and it worked.

Unfortunately, the same mindset prevails in modern government programs as well. The most notable example is the space shuttle.

While there was a lot of testing of individual elements of the system, at the end, the goal was to take a lot of pieces that worked individually and integrate them into a system in which they all had to work together for the first time with crew on board. Because the goal was to jump immediately to an orbital vehicle, there was no way to do incremental testing of the system, because once a shuttle leaves the launch pad, it has to go into orbit, or at least all the way across the Atlantic.

But even if it had been designed to be capable of incremental testing, the costs of operating it were so high that a test program would have been unaffordable. Ironically, in their efforts to avoid risk, they've ended up with a program that is, on almost any measure by which it was originally advertised--cost, safety, responsiveness--a failure.

As the Wrights opened up the air, the people who open up space will take a similar methodical approach -- testing, flying a little, expanding the envelope, until they become comfortable in the new environment of suborbital space. Then, they'll slowly increase their speed and altitude until the trajectory simply drops the "sub" and becomes orbital. In fact, as I type these words, news has just come in that, in commemoration of today's anniversary, Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne lit its rocket engine for the first time in flight today, and exceeded the speed of sound--a first for a privately-developed airplane, or rocketplane.

It seems on track for a flight into space next year, perhaps to claim the X-Prize. Perhaps the government will learn the lesson, but history and the very nature of governments show that the incentives for them to continue along the past failed path are still in place, and strong.

Fortunately, a hundred years after the first true airplane flight, spurred by new markets and prizes, and just fun, we're seeing new innovative people emulating those resourceful and daring brothers, with a potential to once again transform the world in ways at least as amazing as the Wrights did 10 decades ago.

As the Bush administration is reconsidering space policy now, let's hope it understands that lesson as well.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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