A Breathless Survey of the Overhead Reconnaissance Harvest of CORONA

A graph of the CORONA Recovery System.

A graph of the CORONA Recovery System.

The U.S.’s development of a viable satellite reconnaissance program proved a major challenge through much of the 1950s, with the first successful flight coming in 1960. Under development in the latter 1950s, Project CORONA eventually became a successful American reconnaissance satellite program.

Contracted to Lockheed, Glenn L. Martin Co., and RCA under the codename “Pied Piper” in 1955, by July 1956 the development plan for a covert CORONA spacecraft was approved that could overfly the Soviet Union and take images of military installations and other potential Cold War targets. This effort featured an Atlas booster with a spacecraft stabilized in orbit on three axes for high pointing accuracy of still cameras using film weighing thousands of pounds. At the same time it pursued television capabilities in a satellite later names Samos.

In the aftermath of the Sputnik crisis of 1957-1958, the DoD raised the priority of the reconnaissance satellite program and increased funding. Reassigned to the CIA with Richard Bissell Jr. leading the effort, the CORONA film reconnaissance approach raced to an early deployment. An Itek camera, built for the satellite, featured a twelve-inch focal length lens in a camera mounted on a three-axis stabilized satellite. It would take 70-degree wide photographic swaths with a resolution of 12 meters (40 feet) from an orbit with a perigee of about 190 kilometers (120 miles). As the camera’s acetate film was exposed, it would be fed into a return capsule at the top of the spacecraft. After a few orbits, a small solid-propellant recovery rocket could decelerate a recovery capsule into a reentry trajectory, a parachute would deploy, and the reentry vehicle would be snatched mid-air by a C-119 recovery plane.

CORONA progressed at a frantic pace in the latter 1950s, covering its activities with the ruse of the codename “Project Discoverer,” a test program to develop new technologies required for the study of the space environment, including biomedical experiments that had to be recovered from space. The reality was that this was all about satellite reconnaissance of the Soviet Union.

The first such test of this capability came on January 21, 1959, with the attempted launch of a Thor-Agena booster combination that failed on the launch pad. Additional tests had their problems as well, and it was not until Discoverer 13, launched on August 18, 1960, that the CORONA system reached orbit and then correctly returned its reentry vehicle containing photographs of the ICBM base at Plesetsk and the bomber base at Mys Schmitda in the Soviet Union. After this flight, CORONA became an operational mission and functioned through 1973 when it was succeeded by later generations of reconnaissance satellites.

The CORONA spacecraft.

The CORONA spacecraft.

In assessing the thirteen-year-long CORONA program, one can only call attention to the treasure trove of imagery that enabled much more intelligence analysis than ever before in the Cold War. Through six versions of progressively more sophisticated satellites, named KH-1 through KH-4B (KH stood for “Key Hole”), CORONA had 144 satellites launched, of which 102 returned usable imagery. An official history of CORONA concluded:

In the context of its operational utility, exploitation of technology, and enhancement of the nation’s fund of intelligence information, Corona had to be rated an outstanding success. Originally considered an interim system and assumed to have, at best, three of four years of operational utility, Corona remained the sole source of overflight intelligence for the United States for nearly five years, and was a primary source of basic information used to shape national defense policy for 12 years. Although designed as a search system, at the end Corona was providing better detail and resolution than several of the surveillance systems earlier touted to supplement it.

Throughout the 1960s the system provided critical data about Soviet military capabilities, among other things confirming that there was no missile gap as alleged in the 1960 presidential election with the United State trailing the Soviet Union in capability, offering early intelligence on the deployment of Soviet missiles to Cuba in 1962, and adding to understanding about the various conflicts in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, the Sino-Soviet border, and Central Europe. An appropriate conclusion: “In its years of service, Corona had identified and accurately located all operational Soviet ballistic missile sites. More need not be said.”

Of course, this capability with reconnaissance satellites rested on “freedom of space,” sometimes referred to as the “open skies” doctrine. While Eisenhower had pursued it aggressively previously, Sputnik helped establish the principle by going first into orbit over the United States without protest. In that regard the Soviet’s did “us a good turn, unintentionally, in establishing the concept of freedom of international space,” Defense Department official Neil McElroy stated to Eisenhower a few days after Sputnik’s launch in 1957. This made possible the development of reconnaissance satellites and their use throughout the cold war to ascertain what the Soviet Union was doing with its strategic forces. The same was true for the Soviet Union’s reconnaissance satellites overflying the U.S.

This enabled both sides to make decisions based on timely, accurate information. President Lyndon B. Johnson did not overestimate the importance of this technology in 1967 when he said that the U.S. probably spent between $35 and $40 billion on it, but “If nothing else had come of it except the knowledge we’ve gained from space photography, it would be worth 10 times what the whole program has cost.”

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Call for Papers: 2015 Sacknoff Prize for Space History

Please keep in mind the following opportunity:

2015 Sacknoff Prize for Space History

Details on the 2015 prize: www.spacehistory101.com/prize

A 2015 Flyer for Posting: www.spacebusiness.com/prize-2015.pdf

First awarded in 2011, the annual prize is designed to encourage students to perform original research and submit papers with history of spaceflight themes.  Open to undergraduate and graduate level students enrolled at an accredited college or university, the winner receives:

  • A $300 cash prize,
  • A trophy,
  • Publication in the journal, “Quest: The History of Spaceflight”
  • An invitation to present at the annual conference for the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT).

Submissions must be postmarked by 1 July 2015, with the winners announced in August. Manuscripts should not exceed 10,000 words, be written in English, and emphasize in-depth research, with adequate citations of the sources utilized.  Originality of ideas is important. Diagrams, graphs, images, or photographs may be included. The prize committee will  include the editor of “Quest: The History of Spaceflight” and members of the Society for the History of Technology / Aerospace Committee (SHOT/Albatross).

Although works must be historical in character, they can draw on disciplines other than history, eg. cultural studies, literature, communications, economics, engineering, science, etc. Comparative or international studies of the history of spaceflight are encouraged. Possible subjects include, but are not limited to, historical aspects of space companies and their leaders; the social effects of spaceflight; space technology development; the space environment; space systems design, engineering, and safety; and the regulation of the space business, financial, and economic aspects of the space industry.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact Scott Sacknoff at scott@spacehistory101.com.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Intimate Universality”

cvr-intimateIntimate Universality: Local and Global Themes in the History of Climate and Weather. Edited by James Rodger Fleming, Vladimir Jankovic, and Deborah R. Coen. Sagamore Beach: MA: Science History Publications, 2006.

Although nearly a decade old now, Intimate Universality is a collected work that James Rodger Fleming, Colby College, has edited along with Vladimir Jankovic, University of Manchester, and Deborah R. Coen, Columbia University, that still has great value. The eight chapters of this book offer a set of fascinating snapshots of historical episodes suggesting a broad perspective on the manner in which humans have understood climate since the Enlightenment. While all of the essays were quite useful I found a few of them especially provocative.

Well familiar with the work of William Herschel in astronomy, I was taken by Greg Good’s analysis in chapter 2 of Herschel’s climatic studies. Equally helpful were the two chapters by Roger Turner and Greg Cushman tying together the need for accurate weather prediction and the development of aviation in the Western Hemisphere. Cushman’s linkage of atmospheric sciences and aviation technology to American colonial aspirations in the first half of the twentieth century is an especially intriguing idea that should not be accepted blindly but offers truly exciting prospects for future historical investigation.

Then there is perhaps the signature contribution of the volume, Fleming’s “Global Climate Change and Human Agency: Inadvertent Influence and ‘Archimedean’ Interventions,” which comments on the nature of global climate change, and especially actions being debated in the public policy arena to counteract our warming planet. He discussed how some have advocated the use of giant sunshades in space or “geoengineering” with orbiting dust and other proposed countermeasures as countermeasures to the pattern of global warming that scientists warn about.

I was reminded in reading this essay of the remarks of Al Gore at the X-Prize Executive Summit that I attended on October 19, 2006. He said of these schemes, “In a word, I think it is nuts. If we don’t know enough to stop putting 70 million tons of global warming pollution into the atmosphere every day, how in god’s name can we know enough to precisely counteract that?” He had even stronger words for those who denied the reality of global warming. “Our planet has a rising fever. If the crib catches fire you don’t say: ‘Hmmm, how fast is that crib going to burn? Has it ever burned before? Is my baby flame retardant?’”

I think Fleming also sees a similar danger in the public policy considerations of global climate change, noting that the proposed cure through geoengineering may be worse that the disease. Better would be invoking the first law of holes, when you are in one stop digging. As his analysis shows, continued pollution of our planet should be curtailed, stopped entirely in the near term, and counteracted in a more distant future.

This foray into public policy history and analysis is a welcome addition to an important and useful book. I congratulate all those responsible for the publication of this fine volume. I am certain that it will become an important benchmark in the historiography of climate change and weather studies.

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United States Aerospace Corporations and the Changing Nature of Global Markets

During the period between the 1960s and the 1990s the share of the market enjoyed by American aerospace manufacturers fell sharply as foreign corporations—either private or state-run—gained greater portions of the market. In 1986, for example, United States high‑technology imports exceeded exports for the first time. The aerospace industry was one of the only remaining fields with a trade surplus, 90 percent of which was attributable to the sale of aircraft and aircraft parts on the international market.

Compared to an overall U.S. trade deficit in manufactured goods of $136 billion in 1986, the aerospace industry had a surplus of $11.8 billion. But the U.S. lead in aerospace was shrinking rapidly. In 1980, the U.S. market share of large civil transport sales was 90 percent. By 1992, that percentage had dropped to 70 percent and was seemingly in freefall. This was taking place at the same time that projections for ever increasing air travel and the need for more airliners seemed unquenchable. The lead in the commuter aircraft market had already been lost. During the 1990s the U.S. lost its lead in the space launch market as well. It has been in the doldrums for at least the last 25 years.

Air Travel

Airbus Projections of Air Travel Increases.


The reasons for this loss of market share are complex. From my perspective the aerospace community is in the doldrums for five key reasons:

First, there are the inherent difficulties of the aerospace marketplace. As aerospace technology became more complex and expensive, it was also more difficult for individual companies to shoulder the entire financial burden for researching and developing new technology and products themselves. It has always been a marginal economic enterprise in all its myriad permutations. Aerospace manufacturers literally bet the company on a new design because of the enormous cost associated with developing an aircraft or rocket. Malcolm Stamper, former president of Boeing Aircraft Corporation, remarked that “Locating the break-even point is like finding a will-o’-the-wisp.”

Knowledgeable individuals have concluded that it is not until 20 to 35 production aircraft have actually been manufactured that production costs become predictable. For rockets and other space technology, which does not have large production runs, the economics of manufacturing are even more problematic.

Second, American aerospace executives were too often complacent in maintaining their competitive technological edge. Aerospace corporations, like a lot of other organizations, have a decided “not invented here” syndrome. Ideas emanating from beyond the recognized corporate structure too often get short shrift. I can cite numerous examples ranging from Northrop Aircraft Corporation’s hesitancy to embrace retractable landing gear in the 1920s to Boeing’s hesitancy in adopting the so-called “glass cockpit” technology emerging in the 1980s.

While the “glass cockpit” offered cutting-edge avionics displays, this American-made technology found its first use at Airbus Industrie in Europe. Airbus made it a centerpiece of its newest generation of transports, in the process helping itself compete more effectively in the marketplace. Losing market share, U.S. manufacturers then raced to adopt the new technology into its own designs.

The "Glass Cockpit" in a Boeing 737.

The “Glass Cockpit” in a Boeing 737.

Third, there has been a lack—indeed a celebration of that lack—of coherent industrial policy in the United States. Because of the nature of our republic and citizenry, Americans have been loath to adopt anything approaching a centralized, rational, long-term industrial policy because of its inherently undemocratic and remarkably technocratic and elitist characteristics.

Such a policy would recognize that the health of the American aerospace industry—and perhaps other industries—were important both for national security and economic competitiveness. Accordingly, it is something of a truism to suggest that anything other than what has passed for aerospace policy in this nation, a sub-unit of that largely non-existent industrial policy, has been both ad hoc and expeditious.

Fourth, there has been the success of industrial policy by other nations aimed at securing greater market share for non-U.S. aerospace companies. Their governments, especially in command economies such as the communist bloc during the Cold War, often directly subsidized their national manufacturers. There is no question but that one of the major reasons for the European community to invest in aerospace technology has been to wrest economic market share from the United States.

European policy has aimed at gaining market share in aerospace capability, and it has been quite successful. The Japanese, in addition, have long pursued policies, and directly subsidized key industries, to help move the fruits of basic research into the marketplace for the purpose of gaining economic advantage vis-à-vis the United States.

Finally, a major problem of the aircraft business has been its cyclic nature, leading to boom and bust periods. Complicated by the enormous infrastructure necessary to support the design and manufacture of aircraft, these firms were exceptionally limited as to their markets and their capabilities. President Ronald Reagan’s science advisor noted in 1982 that “aircraft are now the dominant common carrier for inter‑city travel, and the safety and control of that travel are a federal responsibility.” He recommended pressing hard for government support of basic research that could then be transferred to American private firms. Those ideas were not adopted.

The cyclical nature of Aircraft production.

The cyclical nature of Aircraft production.

So how do we get out of the current state of the doldrums? There are many things I could suggest but let me concentrate on one, that of ensuring the technical superiority of American aerospace technology. There is a direct correlation between R&D investment and excellence in technology. Since the 1960s the percentage of investment by the United States in aerospace technology has stabilized at about one percent of the Federal budget.

The aerospace corporations and some universities invest in R&D as well, but that is a decidedly small amount and at least in the case of the private sector limited to almost entirely short term research. So let’s do one thing that will yield a positive result. The American nation should decide to double this investment in aerospace R&D during the coming decade. This is fully within the bounds of our capability, and it will help assure American economic, military, and cultural competitiveness. Not to do so would be to turn our backs, as we did in the early 1900s on the legacy of the Wrights and their enormously significant invention.

Let me close with a comment made famous by Tom Hanks in the baseball film A League of Her Own—and no it’s not “There’s no crying in baseball”—but it is one that is equally insightful. He told the Geena Davis character that what they were doing was hard, and of course it had to be because otherwise “everyone would do it.” Like baseball, flying is hard and flying with the latest technology is harder still. If it weren’t everyone would do it.

The United States is a nation with the high quality of economic, political, social, and knowledge base necessary to bring forward the next generation of aerospace technology. All it takes is will. All we have to do is make the decision to do so and follow that with the investment necessary to further the frontiers of flight. No one knows where that might lead but I believe it will lead to a hypersonic plane, jumbojets like we have never seen before, and trips beyond this planet. And we could do so in a safe and environmentally friendly manner.

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A Revolution in Cosmology?

207373_148711868528748_100001698067108_311659_1153299_nOnly five centuries ago, not even the blink of an eye in time when compared to the age of the universe, humanity’s vision extended but a little beyond Saturn. Our ancestors envisioned a universe both limited and orderly. The telescope changed all that, and our universe expanded exponentially as we observed literally thousands of objects beyond the Earth. Because of developments in astronomy and spaceflight in the twentieth century, humanity’s vision of the universe has changed even more.

Edwin Hubble proposed the idea of the Big Bang to explain the origins of the universe and since that time numerous spacecraft and scientists have helped to expand on our knowledge of the universe. The most significant astronomical instrument since Galileo’s first telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope, has revolutionized our understanding. In just the last decade, our cosmology has changed as we found irrefutable evidence of black holes, the Big Bang, dark matter, dark energy, the corpuscular universe, multiple dimensions, and extra solar planets. So just what have we learned since the beginning of the space age, what big questions exist at present, and how are space scientists seeking to answer them?

Using the powerful telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory near Pasadena, California, in the early 1920s astronomer Edwin Hubble first confirmed the existence of galaxies outside the Milky Way. He then observed that these galaxies were racing away from ours, an indication that the universe was expanding. This became the first critical evidence pointing to an explanation of the origin of the universe in a Big Bang from a singularity of infinite nothingness that contained all of the matter of our universe to what we observe today. It proved an elegant, convincing, and resilient theory of the universe’s formation. Despite periodic detractors, the Big Bang theory is virtually universally accepted in the scientific community even as it undergoes moderate modification through further observation and experimentation.

For decades scientists debated the possibility that the mass of the universe—matter, anti-matter, dark matter, and perhaps others types as yet undiscovered—would be sufficient that its gravitational forces over eons would halt the expansion and begin a contraction of the universe back to its singularity. And then the process would start all over again. Whether we live in an open (expanding indefinitely) or closed (eventually contracting) universe depends very much on the mass of the universe and the gravity generated by it.

Thus far scientists have found that only about 4 percent of the universe exists in the form of stars, gas planets, white dwarfs, black holes, and other observable matter. The rest is made up of dark energy or dark matter, and the core question is whether this 96 percent of the universe’s “stuff” is sufficiently strong in gravity to pull everything back from endless expansion. Many scientists now think that the universe will continue to expand indefinitely, with energy eventually dissipating some trillion years in the future and all stars eventually becoming so many stellar cinders. This is a pretty bleak future, but obviously a far distant one.

Of course, the universe may not end in this manner. Scientists may be wrong about these projections. Something yet undiscovered mass or process may affect cosmic evolution in a far different manner. The most intriguing possibility at present is a theory of multiverses occupying the same time-space. According to some cosmologists, the space in our universe is part of a three-dimensional place called a brane, short for membrane, which is also part of a much larger eleven dimensional space-time connected by gravitational forces.

There may even be an infinite number of three-dimensional universes occupying portions of this larger eleven dimensional space-time. In modern M-theory, as the multiverse ideas are called, other universes might be very different from ours, but separate from own space-time by a very short physical space. Like frequencies on a single radio, there might be a vast number of successful and failed universes co-existing in an eternal state.

Perhaps black holes offer linkages between these universes, perhaps not. Perhaps there may be ways to travel between them. Perhaps also, black holes are the point from which new universes begin, extending as corpuscles of the universe from which the black hole had emerged. If so, perhaps the eternity of all we know in this universe may be assured elsewhere. This theory is unproven, and perhaps unprovable, but it represents an enormously exciting potential for consideration.

I showed my cousin through the “Explore the Universe” exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum last week and was waxing eloquent about some of these concepts. She was fascinated, but had difficultly fathoming the sheer magnitude of the possibilities. She’s not alone; so do I. It was a bit of the blind leading the blind. But it is one of the most exciting concepts I’ve ever been exposed to. I always wonder, what might we learn in the twenty-first century that will lead to a scientific revolution every bit as great as the Copernican Revolution of the seventeenth century and the Einstein Revolution of the twentieth century?

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism”

FogelThe Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism. By Robert William Fogel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Nobel Laureate Robert William Fogel (1926-2013) upset the historical discipline throughout his entire career. One of his first major works, Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History (1964), used sophisticated statistical analysis to overturn the traditional assertion that railroads in the nineteenth century greatly stimulated American economic growth by making a strong case that the impact was actually quite small, only about 2.7% of 1890 GNP. Moreover, Fogel, working with Stanley Engermen, published Time on the Cross (1974), a major quantitative reinterpretation of American slavery. It argued that Southern slavery was enormously profitable and productive, perhaps even more efficient as an economic system than free labor. It created a firestorm by arguing that since slave owners were good capitalists they were less exploitative and oppressive than previously characterized.

The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism is not as controversial as his study of slavery, but Fogel made the case in it that there have been four cycles of religious fervor, driven largely by evangelicalism, and this has fueled a never-ending march toward greater equality. In it he offers “a framework for analyzing the movements that shaped the egalitarian creed in America” (p. 39). One of the most interesting aspects of this book is Fogel’s characterization of these various “Great Awakenings.”

  1. The First Great Awakening (1730s-1820s general dates), arose from a mixture of Enlightenment principles with greater equality. It found its greatest manifestation in the American Revolution. Fogel stated: “Steeped in the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and harboring suspicions of the established churches, the leaders of the Revolution tended to view all political issues through the prism of natural rights rather than divine revelation” (p. 20).
  2. The Second Great Awakening (1800s-1870s general dates), undertook a remaking of society through greater egalitarianism with the abolition of slavery as the penultimate success of the era. “The abolition of slavery was the most radical and far-reaching of the reforms sought by the evangelicals of the Second Great Awakening, especially with respect to the egalitarian ethic” (p. 104). Ultimately, according to Fogel, these reformers sought to make the Earth acceptable for the coming of the Kingdom of God on Earth.
  3. The Third Great Awakening (1890s-1930s general dates) continued many of the reforms left unfinished by earlier crusaders, but emphasized the rise of a Social Gospel. This effort “laid the basis for the welfare state, providing both the ideological foundation and the political drive for the labor reforms of the 1930, 1940s and 1950s, and for the civil rights reforms of the 1950 and 1960s, and for the new feminist reforms of the late 1960s and early 1970s” (p. 25).
  4. The Fourth Great Awakening emerging in the 1970s and 1980s and still going strong has emphasized seeming retrenchment—pro-life and pro-family emphases, values-oriented school curricula, and attacks on the failures of the Welfare State—but in actuality are disagreements over tactics over the method of achieve greater egalitarianism rather than the opposite.

Fogel comments: “As set forth here, the Great Awakenings are not merely, nor primarily, religious phenomena. They are primarily political phenomena in which the evangelical churches represent the leading edge of an ideological and political response to accumulated technological, economic, and social changes that undermined the received culture” (p. 39).

Collectively, this structure of cycles of reform in American history have been called, by others and not by Fogel himself, “The Fogel Paradigm.” John B. Carpenter commented, “Fogel’s paradigm is drawn from what he believes are cycles of ethical challenges America has undergone provoked by technological innovations that create moral crises that, in turn, are resolved by evangelical awakenings” (“The Fourth Great Awakening or Apostasy: Is American Evangelicalism Cycling Upward or Spiraling Downward,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 44/4 (December 2001): 647).

Fogel makes clear that these egalitarian reform movements achieved reality only through the intervention of government, at all levels. Accordingly, such achievements as the increase of income and life spans has been possible through public investment. Subsidies for all manner of “public goods,” especially through New Deal and Great Society programs, led to what he calls an “egalitarian revolution” in the twentieth century. It changed everything. Most of these changes have been accomplished through a relatively simple transfer of funds from one part of society to another, and as much as some many complain about this it has been a generally positive process for America as a whole. What is harder, and Fogel tries to address this in the last part of his book, is the need to pursue reforms in relation to “immaterial goods”—a sense of purpose, a work ethic, a spiritual wellbeing—as the major egalitarian agenda for the twenty-first century. The spiritual gap that Fogel perceives cannot be resolved through simple transfer payments from one part of society to another. He sees the need for mentoring, extended education, greater community, and the like as the challenge before all Americans.

At sum, Fogel argues that “the egalitarian creed…is at the core of American political culture” (p. 32). He demonstrates that while political elements in the United States might disagree over methods, individual objectives, and even short-term outcomes all sides agree on both the opportunity and the mandate to make the world a better, more equitable place. They might differ over the end-state, “equality of opportunity” versus “equality of condition,” but they do not disagree over the desire for greater egalitarianism.

Fogel’s argument is masterful, bringing together insights from history, religion, biology, nutrition, demography, economics, and sociology. The result is an impressive analysis that merge the priorities of both the political left and right into an egalitarian crusade that has been underway for more than three-hundred years.

If there is one take-away, it is that both Great Society liberals and hard-edged conservatives have the same objective, making the world a better, more fulfilling place. They differ over tactics and approaches. I don’t know if Fogel thought of himself as a political uniter, but he drew closer connections between those seemingly divergent groups than I had thought about before. This may be a helpful perspective for those seeking a way forward in our political process.

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The Mythology of the Lone Genius and American Aeronautics Policy

The first flight of the Wright Brothers, December 17, 1903.

The first flight of the Wright Brothers, December 17, 1903.

Since December 17, 1903, the dates of the first flight at Kitty Hawk, the Wright brothers have been celebrated as lone geniuses who succeeded when all others had failed. They have been interpreted to represent the very best American civilization has to offer the world and have been celebrated as members of an elite, and very tiny, group of pathbreaking thinkers produced throughout human history.

This is one of the enduring images in popular conception of how great advances in science and technology take place. From the mad scientists of fiction—Captain Nemo of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Dr. Emmett Brown of Back to the Future, and Fred MacMurray’s The Absent-Minded Professor come to mind—to the reality of Philo T. Farnsworth working patiently to build a practical television and Steve Jobs realizing that computers were destined to become personal appliances connected one to another in networks, Americans glory in little guys doing great things in their garages or basements.

There have been enough instances of this in U.S. history to feed this folklore and allow it to persist. The “Renaissance man,” who with broad background can build a technological system from the ground up, permeates this ideal. It is a uniquely compelling vision for a nation of overachievers such as the United States, and it does exist in unique personalities and situations. Individualism and versatility characterize this concept of engineering.

Its quintessential expression in American history came in the work of Thomas A. Edison, whose many accomplishments in technology have been recognized as seminal to modern life. These same virtuoso expressions of engineering mastery have also been recognized in the work of U.S. rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard, who spent most of his career as a lone researcher designing and testing rockets on a piece of isolated land near Roswell, New Mexico.

This tale of the lone inventor, working in solitude, coming up with a hugely significant invention with neither assistance nor hindrance from others is perhaps legitimate when thinking of the Wright brothers and the process of invention that led to the airplane. At the same time, the “Renaissance man” has never been very common in the history of science and technology. But the kinds of lone wolves that make up the folklore, reinforced by the reality of a few bona fide geniuses, are rare indeed. This has especially been the case in twentieth-century aerospace engineering.

In part because of a widespread faith in the ingenuity of American genius, of which the Wright brothers have always been touted as a primary example, the United States has never developed and implemented a coherent, long-term industrial policy, a sub-unit of which relates to the aerospace industrial community. Politicians and the public usually fail to understand that this belief in the capability of American inventors is fiction. Even in the case of the Wrights, inventors of the airplane, the lead in technology did not last. As early as a decade after the first flight, Europe, supported amply by government laboratories, had retaken from the Americans the lead in the technology of flight. As Smithsonian Institution secretary Charles D. Walcott wrote to Congress in 1915:

As soon as Americans demonstrated the feasibility of flight by heavier-than-air machines, France took the matter up promptly, and utilized all the available agencies, including the army, navy, and similar establishments, both public and private. Large sums were devoted to the research work by wealthy individuals, and rapid advance was made in the art.

Germany quickly followed, and a fund of one million seven hundred thousand dollars was raised by subscription, and experimentation directed by a group of technically trained and experienced men.

Walcott added that England and Russia followed suit, leading the way into the air age. He noted that when World War I began in 1914, about fourteen hundred military aircraft existed, of which only twenty-three belonged to the United States.

The United States supported nothing of a comparable nature, and American flying quickly lost ground to European investment. This was particularly galling to many aviation advocates in the United States, the home of the Wright brothers. The European success was documented not only in a growing record of achievement but also underscored by a lack of organized effort in the United States.

51D9i+Z6oLL._SY300_Indeed, as late as 1914, the United States stood fourteenth in total funds allocated by nations to military aviation, far behind even Bulgaria and Greece. Confident of American exceptionalism in all areas, the nation’s leaders waited for creative geniuses after the manner of the Wrights to rise to new challenges and propel aeronautical capabilities forward. Their complacence rested in some measure not only because of the longstanding debate over the role of the federal government in the economy and a concern about all things military but also on a common misperception. Americans have a fundamental belief, sometimes known as American exceptionalism, that there is something different and better about American life stemming from the origins of the United States and its subsequent evolution and separating it from the experience of other nations.

This belief in American exceptionalism is important in the story of the Wrights, for it informs how the nation—especially its leadership—viewed their contributions and the expectations held for repeated innovation without any effort on the part of the nation. Unfortunately, most people failed to grasp, in part because of the very success that the Wrights enjoyed, that great leaps forward in technological capability have almost always required significant long-term investment in research and development—research and development that does not have explicit short-term return to the “bottom line” and may not yield even long-term economic return.

The irony of the Wrights’ genius is that they helped make Americans complacent about the further development of the airplane, a complacency that only subsided when other nations took leadership. World War I forced the United States to scrap this approach and invest in military aeronautics, and the threat of World War II did the same with spectacular success. The Cold War sparked a similar investment, one that helped ensure the success of the United States in that forty-year struggle.

Total U.S. InvestmentAt the end of the Cold War, however, and the belief that the United States stood alone as the world’s only superpower, there was a rapid erosion in the level of federal support research and development investment that the federal government made in the technology of flight. It was no longer viewed as necessary for national defense, and the belief in the inherent capability of Americans to meet any normal challenge carried the policy debate. After all, the United States was exceptional!

That, coupled with the belief of many public officials that aerospace technology was mature and that private industry should be able to sustain aerospace advances without significant government investment, led to additional complacency. After all, like the Wright brothers, the power of innovation rested with the lone inventor.

It is a poor legacy to saddle a pioneering set of amateur engineers with, regardless of how much genius they demonstrated in solving the problems of controlled powered flight more than a century ago.

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Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History

For anyone who might have an interest:


Requested for the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History

This award is named in memory of Frederick I. Ordway III (1927-2014), human spaceflight advocate and chronicler of the history of rocketry and space travel.  The award is presented on an occasional basis by the American Astronautical Society and recognizes exceptional, sustained efforts to inform and educate on Astronautical history through one or more media, such as (1) writing, editing, or publication of a book series (as opposed to a single title), (2) preparation and presentation of exhibits; or (3) production for distribution through film, television, art, or other non-print media.  The award process is managed by the AAS History Committee.

Nomination forms are available at www.astronautical.org/awards/ordway.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Josh Gibson”

josh gibsonJosh Gibson: A Life in the Negro Leagues. By William Brashler. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1978, reprint edition 2000.

There are maybe a dozen well-known names from the first half of the twentieth century when African Americans played professional baseball in segregated Negro Leagues. Some made the transition into the MLB and the names of Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, Minnie Minoso, and others are well known for their careers not in the Negro Leagues but in the formerly segregated MLB. Josh Gibson was not one of them, but regardless he holds a special place. A superb hitter, Gibson became known as the “Black Babe Ruth” and all who saw him play described his powerful swing, uncanny ability to collect hits, and to gun down runners from his position as a catcher. He started playing for the Homestead Grays in 1930 and remained in Pittsburgh, sometimes with the Pittsburgh Crawfords, until his career ended in 1945.

Josh Gibson is said to have a lifetime batting average higher than .350, although actual numbers are impossible to calculate since records were so poorly kept and much of the play was not against other Negro League teams but during barnstorming stints against all manner of teams, both professional and not. Some say that he hit over 800 home runs in his career, although others question that based on an analysis of newspaper box scores.

Tragically, Josh Gibson died young, in 1947, when he was only 35 years old. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1943, and suffered a worsening condition throughout the rest of life before falling to a stroke. But he also suffered from alcohol addiction and some have suggested that this contributed to his stroke.

William Brashler’s biography of Josh Gibson does a reasonable job of telling what there is to know about Josh Gibson. It is not a scholarly account and there is no way to verify information presented in it. I very much regret that. I always want to verify what is reported. Regardless, it is a fine reading experience, giving all who delve into it a new appreciation for a superb baseball player.

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What Is the Legacy of the NACA?

NACA LogoMarch 3, 2015, was the centenary of the birth of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). This has sparked a measure of investigation and analysis about the place of the NACA in the history of flight in the twentieth century. The NACA had the mission “to separate the real from the imagined and make known the overlooked and unexpected” in the quest for flight. The NACA transformed into NASA in 1958 and has lived on as the centerpiece of American aerospace research and development (R&D). Because of this I have been thinking about the legacies of the NACA. Here are some initial thoughts on this subject. I’m sure there are other legacies that might be considered. Any comments are welcome.

  1. The efforts of the NACA played a major role in rescuing the United States from the doldrums of aeronautics that it fallen into during the first decade after the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk. Its establishment in 1915 served effectively as a means of focusing federal attention on the questions that needed to be answered to advance the technology. The new agency hired innovative engineers, gave them the instruments they needed to do cutting edge research (especially wind tunnels for the testing of aerodynamic systems), and both the funding (never plentiful but sufficient) and the freedom (always a critical commodity) to solve the “problems of flight.” Any history that does not recognize this critical aspect of the organization’s past is inaccurate and incomplete.
  2. NACA R&D fueled a revolution in aeronautics that took place in the latter 1920s and 1930s through World War II as the industry moved from canvas and wooden biplanes to metal monoplanes. Its airfoils, engines, propellers, control systems, etc. were everywhere incorporated into the aircraft of the era.
  3. The NACA led the effort to fly higher, farther, and faster in the post-World War II era as it entered partnerships with industry and the military services to “expand the envelope” of knowledge about flight. The famous X-plane series of research vehicles established a record of accomplishment unmatched anywhere else in the world.
  4. The NACA also pioneered the road to space by establishing the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD) in 1945 and systematically developing a rocket capability that helped open the door to spaceflight during the Cold War and after.
  5. The NACA taught America to fly smarter through a range of R&D projects that made possible the first commercial jet airliners, the first fly-by-wire capabilities, and numerous innovative aerodynamics, propulsion, materials, and guidance and control systems.
  6. The NACA became the basis for NASA when established in 1958. Its firm foundation provided the organizational structure for the new agency and its staff provided the bulk of its intellectual heft as NASA began operations.
  7. The NACA made a profound impact on the technology of flight from its creation in 1915 and should be remembered and commemorated for those contributions.
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