Soaring Ambition

Wilbur gliding with US Lifesaving Station and Weather Station in background- Kitty Hawk, 1902

Good morning, it’s Monday, December 17, 2018. On this date 115 years ago, Orville and Wilbur Wright took turns at the controls of their powered flying machine on the dunes at Kill Devil Hills on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Orville took the first flight of the day. He was airborne for 12 seconds — not much longer than a cowboy is aboard a bull — traveling a mere 120 feet in the air.

At noon, however, on the fourth and final test flight of the day, older brother Wilbur took the controls. Taking off into cold, gusting winds, he stayed airborne for 59 seconds, traveling 852 feet. When Wilbur Wright alit safely on the sand, the two bicycle mechanics from Ohio had demonstrated the feasibility of flying a machine heavier than air.

In so doing, the Wright brothers fulfilled a dream as old as mankind — and just last Thursday, seasoned aviators Mark Stucky and C.J. Sturckow were ferried to an altitude of 43,000 feet by a Richard Branson-owned Virgin Galactic “mothership.” Dropped like a bomb from that height, the pilots fired up the engines of SpaceShipTwo and shot heavenward. In the skies above the Mojave Desert, where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier 71 years ago, SpaceShipTwo attained an airspeed approaching Mach 3 as it ascended to sub-orbital space, 51.4 miles above Earth’s sea level.

Although the stated aim of Virgin Galactic is “space tourism,” Richard Branson is tapping into a more profound instinct: Like the Wright Brothers, he wants to offer his fellow Earthlings the means to escape the “surly bonds of Earth.” It’s an enduring human desire.

Fifty years ago this week, NASA was preparing to launch Apollo 8, the manned mission that orbited the moon and put the goal of a lunar landing within reach. Today American scientists need to a hitch a ride from the Russians to get to the International Space Station, and NASA is concerned that China has the lead in space exploration. But if one takes the long view, these developments are neither as shocking nor as worrying as they seem.

Soviets cosmonauts, not American astronauts, reached space first. And the kite was invented in China some 1,000 years before Christ, underscoring the point that yearning to escape the bounds of gravity seems an innate longing of many cultures.

In his loosely factual “History of the Kings of Britain,” Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in 1136 that the ruler of the city of Bath, a king named Bladud, was killed while trying to fly. (This accident left the throne to his son, Leir, whom Shakespeare immortalized as King Lear.)

Actually, Geoffrey had appropriated a more famous story from Greek mythology, the one about Daedalus and Icarus. Imprisoned on the isle of Crete, they fashioned wings and attached them with wax to escape through the air.

It’s supposed to be a morality tale — Icarus’ vanity takes him too close to the sun and the wax melts — but it’s not a lesson that ever took. Human beings have imagined themselves flying, and pushing the envelope, in the phrase popularized by Tom Wolfe, for centuries.

From the Hebrew prophet Elijah, who was picked up by a chariot and horses of fire and “went up by a whirlwind into heaven,” to Roger Bacon, who wrote about mechanized flight in 1250 A.D., to Leonardo da Vinci, who drew helicopters and parachutes, to Leonardo di Caprio, who has already signed up for one of Richard Branson’s trips to space, inventive minds have fancied the idea of flying as high as possible.

Wilbur Wright conceded that it was an obsession. “For some years, I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man,” he wrote in 1900 to engineer Octave Chanute. “My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life.”

Wilbur would die young, in 1912, although from disease, not air travel. “The desire to fly,” he wrote, “is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who, in their grueling travels across trackless lands in prehistoric times, looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space, at full speed, above all obstacles, on the infinite highway of the air.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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