Historians five hundred years hence may well characterize successful human flight, and all that followed in both air and space, as the most significant single technology of the twentieth century. Has it fundamentally reshaped our world, at once awesome and awful in its effect on the human condition? Has it made easy, even luxurious, movement about the globe?
At the dawn of the twentieth century, which also had mechanized means of transportation, everyone had to allow multiples of days and sometime weeks for travel. Jules Verne’s character Phineas Fogg of Around the World in Eighty Days was a creature of railroad and steamship timetables that took him throughout the globe with some ease, but certainly on a much longer schedule. As the twenty-first century proceeds, when planning a transcontinental or even trans-Atlantic trip, I have to allow only one day for travel. We rightfully scoff at eighty days being required to circle the Earth; after all, anyone can do it in a few days by airplane and in a few minutes by spacecraft.
Where would the United States stand in 2011 had it not been for the creation of this new system of transportation? While we tend to downplay the significance of government in fostering positive change, in this instance it was the Federal government that sponsored the development of aerospace technology in the twentieth century, Would the inherent creativity of its citizenry have propelled the nation to the forefront of flight? Would the United States have remained as it was during its formative years a modest backwater country of farmers and extractors of natural resources?
The answers to these questions depend very much on the perspective of the people considering them. For me, the ability to fly has altered all aspects of life since 1903 from what had gone for eons previously. And that change only resulted because of the investment of the U.S. government. Without it, I contend, the United States would never have become the global superpower that it has been for more than the last half-century.
While the amount of investment the nation has made in flight has ebbed and flowed with the circumstances of the times, this investment has been critical to the advancing of the technology of flight and without it this capability would have been rudimentary and perhaps stillborn. That was true in the first part of the twentieth century, and it has also remained the case down to the present.
Even before the first flight of the Wright brothers on December 17, 1903, the United States government had been involved in the quest to fly with heaver-than-air vehicles. It contributed $100,000 toward the flying experiments of Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel P. Langley that failed in the fall of 1903. Since that first ill-fated investment, the United States government has recognized the importance of fostering aerospace development for issues of national security and economic viability. Over the years this has taken place in four distinct and significant arenas.
The first is military aerospace technology, employing aeronautical and astronautical equipment and proficiency for the defense of the nation. By far this has been the largest outlay of federal spending on aerospace, funding basic research, development of new and ever more sophisticated weapons systems, and operational capabilities.
Second, the government has been fundamentally involved in fostering the research and development of air and space technologies, principally through federal laboratories such as those attached to the military, and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and its successor the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), but also indirectly through contracts and grants to educational and commercial organizations.
Third, the government has been intrinsically involved in the direction and regulation of commercial aerospace activities, both domestic and overseas, to facilitate air commerce and such aerospace operations as satellite communications.
Fourth, the government has supported the vast majority of space flight activity in the United States directly through federal organizations such as NASA and the Department of Defense.
How did we get to this place in history? I would contend that the double helix of public/private interaction in aerospace activities has fundamentally shaped their nature and course throughout the twentieth century. But always the federal investment has been critical.
But what of the future? Without question, the U.S. is at a critical juncture regarding the long-term health of its aerospace enterprise. Investment is critical to maintaining America’s competitive edge in aerospace technology. Failure to do so will put U.S. aerospace leadership at risk.
One can speculate where the future of flight may go, but whatever the course success will hinge on federal investments in aerospace made today, so that in the future we can build on the foundation of past successes and employ lessons from past failures.