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May 1999
Volume 17, Number 5

The Wright Stuff
Michael Levin

According to the standard account, triumphs over gravity frame the century. Man first conquered the air on December 17, 1903, and today a fleet of space shuttles stands ready to build the International Space Station (ISS). The story has its heroes, too, beginning with plucky if starchy Wilbur and Orville Wright and culminating in John Glenn, First American in Orbit and as of last October the Oldest Man (excuse me, Person) in Space. Time magazine considered making Glenn its 1998 Man of the Year, and New York City gave him another parade. He has parlayed his fame into a senatorship. He has been compared to Icarus.

Usually omitted from this tale, though, is recognition of government intrusion into what should have been private domains, and its consequent debasement of heroism. The Wright Brothers are so unusual from today's perspective, and still inspiring, because they did it all themselves. Tinkerers running an Ohio bicycle shop in the 1890s, the Wrights decided that by rethinking old assumptions and performing careful experiments good old Yankee ingenuity they could realize one of mankind's oldest dreams.

With zero assistance from government at any level, relying solely on their own skills, they achieved marvels. They built the first wind tunnel to observe the effect of moving air on airfoils. Realizing that avian scalloped wings would not work for powered flight, they invented flexible ailerons, the basis for all modern control surfaces. And apart from the obvious courage it took to leap off sand dunes in experimental gliders, as the Wrights did at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in the winters of 1902 and 1903, we admire them for risking their necks in contraptions of their own devising. Nor did they ever exploit their personal glory to gain political power.

Aircraft design advanced quickly in the decade before World War I, with little state involvement. The great incentives, apart from the sheer joy of invention, were prizes offered by newspapers and other private sources for especially long or fast flights. The U.S. Army bought a few planes, but flying remained essentially a private affair.

Even during World War I and the interwar period, government involvement in aviation was relatively limited, especially in the United States. (No American-made planes saw action in World War I; American pilots flew French aircraft.) The romance of dogfights between aces notwithstanding, aviation had little military significance; ground forces were still best for slaughtering the enemy, so governments had no reason to invest in great air armadas.

That left the second great aerial adventure, Charles Lindbergh's nonstop crossing of the Atlantic in 1927, also a private affair. Lindbergh did hold an Army commission, but he was no longer on active duty, and, above all, the idea of undertaking the flight was his. (Here too the incentive was a newspaper's standing offer of $25,000 for the feat.)

By now progress in aircraft technology ruled out anyone fabricating his own plane from scratch, but Lindbergh oversaw every detail of the Spirit of St. Louis that he commissioned from Ryan Aircraft wingspan, fuel tank capacity, weight at takeoff. Here again one man was risking his neck for a great purpose in a mechanical extension of himself. No wonder he earned the sobriquet, the Lone Eagle.

Meanwhile, commercial aviation was advancing as briskly as the computer industry is today. Airplanes got bigger, faster, safer, and more comfortable. Speed records fell yearly; once-inaccessible parts of the world could be reached in a few days at most. The very profitability of these ventures implied the efficient use of resources. Forward-looking research was under way as well. Jet propulsion was invented. Robert Goddard, financed privately by the Guggenheim Foundation (at Lindbergh's urging), showed the feasibility of liquid-fueled rockets.

World War II ended this golden age. (Even before the war, socialized aviation was succumbing to gigantism. Nazi Germany's awesome Zeppelins ran in the red; naturally, the Soviet Union hurriedly built its own wasteful versions of the same.) Air power became a major factor as more powerful aircraft carrying bigger bombs proved as effective at killing as infantry. Atomic weapons enabled a single airplane to destroy whole cities.

From then on military aeronautics and eventually astronautics were as important as commercial aviation. Military contracts became essential for aerospace enterprises worldwide, and military applications honed the technological cutting edge. Every self-respecting nation needed an aviation policy. And, despite the nifty look on TV of F-14s whizzing off carrier decks and rockets ascending from Cape Canaveral, the results of these policies were grossly, laughably, inefficient.

Take speed. By 1957, jetliner passengers willingly paid to travel 600 mph (just under the speed of sound). However, fuel consumption rises faster than speed beyond that point, and consumers were not expected to cover the marginal cost of getting from New York to California in two hours instead of five.

Ah, but in the mid-50s military jets were reaching 1300 mph, so national pride demanded the same of civilian fleets. England, France, the USSR and the U.S. thereupon set out to build Supersonic Transports. The Soviets got there first (always a bad sign) with the Tu-144 in 1964, which lost money from the start. A state-subsidized Franco English consortium then brought forth the Concorde, also a commercial failure; only two remain in service. Wisely, Richard Nixon canceled funding for America's SST. Today's commercial jets are larger and avionically more sophisticated, but they still go 600 mph, the speed the market has shown is the most efficient for existing fuels.

But government got in at the ground floor of manned space exploration, for no earthly or heavenly good reason. The Mercury man-in-space project was undertaken only to beat the Russians (who won anyway). Devised by the Kennedy administration to obscure its bungled invasion of Cuba, the Apollo Moon program costing 25 billion 1969 dollars discovered that the Moon is made of old rocks. Then came the Space Shuttle, most memorable for blowing up a school teacher.

Manned space flight is the sort of mind-boggling stupidity that only governments want or can afford to pursue. Its telegenic spectacles tell the voter his taxes serve some purpose, but, as a few brave NASA scientists will admit off the record, any work done by a man confined to a space suit or space capsule can be done by a robot for a hundredth the cost. Because most of the usable weight on the space shuttle is dedicated to life support, the going rate for cargo is over $10,000 per pound. At this point the official justification for sending men into space is simply to show that the trick can be done; promises of medical advances and zero-gravity industry have been quietly ended.

The ISS is the most outrageous moondoggle yet. Before one part was in orbit its estimated cost had risen from $40 to $60 billion; when finished (assuming that happens) it will certainly exceed $100 billion. The parts to be supplied by the Russians, invited to participate as a political gesture, are so far behind schedule the United States is building back-ups just in case. And the only justification anyone can come up with for the ISS is that it will help in staging a manned mission to Mars a multi-trillion dollar extravaganza that's own purpose, if it has one, is well hidden.

And through it all we have John Glenn. What precisely has he done to be mentioned in the same breath as the Wright Brothers? He did not help design or build the Mercury capsule he occupied for 3 1/2 hours in 1962. He had no say in when or where it would fly; all that was handled by ground control. Tom Wolfe exposed this dirty little secret in The Right Stuff Glenn was spam in a can, no more a pilot than the monkey who famously preceded Glenn into orbit.

All this was even more true of Glenn's ludicrous shuttle mission. By now thousands of technicians at dozens of tracking stations watch every second of every shuttle flight, eliminating the element of the unknown that faced Lindbergh and the Wrights. And what was the mission's great purpose, beyond showing that a physically fit 77-year-old could go up and come down in one piece?

My own tolerance for g-forces stops at roller-coasters, and, granted, climbing atop a thousand tons of propellant requires a certain amount of guts. But so does going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, or any number of zany stunts that in the past no one would take seriously. The accolades awarded Glenn are a measure of how perverted and bureaucratized heroism has become.


Michael Levin is professor of philosophy at the City University of New York.


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