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Friday, December 17, 2010

From Kitty Hawk to the Edge of the Solar System

“Congress shall have power……To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;” — 8th enumerated power, Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution

Today marks the 107th anniversary of powered flight. On December 17, 1903, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first successful flight in history of a self-propelled, heavier-than-air aircraft. Orville piloted the gasoline-powered, propeller-driven biplane, which stayed aloft for 12 seconds and covered 120 feet on its inaugural flight.

Orville and Wilbur Wright grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and developed an interest in aviation after learning of the glider flights of the German engineer Otto Lilienthal in the 1890s. Unlike their older brothers, Orville and Wilbur did not attend college, but they possessed extraordinary technical ability and a sophisticated approach to solving problems in mechanical design. They built printing presses and in 1892 opened a bicycle sales and repair shop. Soon, they were building their own bicycles, and this experience, combined with profits from their various businesses, allowed them to pursue actively their dream of building the world's first airplane.

After exhaustively researching other engineers' efforts to build a heavier-than-air, controlled aircraft, the Wright brothers wrote the U.S. Weather Bureau inquiring about a suitable place to conduct glider tests. They settled on Kitty Hawk, an isolated village on North Carolina's Outer Banks, which offered steady winds and sand dunes from which to glide and land softly. Their first glider, tested in 1900, performed poorly, but a new design, tested in 1901, was more successful. Later that year, they built a wind tunnel where they tested nearly 200 wings and airframes of different shapes and designs. The brothers' systematic experimentations paid off — they flew hundreds of successful flights in their 1902 glider at Kill Devils Hills near Kitty Hawk. Their biplane glider featured a steering system, based on a movable rudder that solved the problem of controlled flight. They were now ready for powered flight.

In Dayton, they designed a 12-horsepower internal combustion engine with the assistance of machinist Charles Taylor and built a new aircraft to house it. They transported their aircraft in pieces to Kitty Hawk in the autumn of 1903, assembled it, made a few further tests, and on December 14 Orville made the first attempt at powered flight. The engine stalled during take-off and the plane was damaged, and they spent three days repairing it. Then at 10:35 a.m. on December 17, in front of five witnesses, the aircraft ran down a monorail track and into the air, staying aloft for 12 seconds and flying 120 feet. The modern aviation age was born. Three more tests were made that day, with Wilbur and Orville alternately flying the airplane. Wilbur flew the last flight, covering 852 feet in 59 seconds.

During the next few years, the Wright brothers further developed their airplanes but kept a low profile about their successes in order to secure patents and contracts for their flying machines. By 1905, their aircraft could perform complex maneuvers and remain aloft for up to 39 minutes at a time. In 1908, they traveled to France and made their first public flights, arousing widespread public excitement. In 1909, the U.S. Army's Signal Corps purchased a specially constructed plane, and the brothers founded the Wright Company to build and market their aircraft. Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever in 1912; Orville lived until 1948.

The historic Wright brothers' aircraft of 1903 is on permanent display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

December 13, 2010, a mere 107 years later, NASA announced that; “The 33-year odyssey of NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft has reached a distant point at the edge of our solar system where there is no outward motion of solar wind.”

Now hurtling toward interstellar space some 17.4 billion kilometers (10.8 billion miles) from the sun, Voyager 1 has crossed into an area where the velocity of the hot ionized gas, or plasma, emanating directly outward from the sun has slowed to zero. Scientists suspect the solar wind has been turned sideways by the pressure from the interstellar wind in the region between stars.

The event is a major milestone in Voyager 1's passage through the heliosheath, the turbulent outer shell of the sun's sphere of influence, and the spacecraft's upcoming departure from our solar system.

"The solar wind has turned the corner," said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist based at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. "Voyager 1 is getting close to interstellar space."

Our sun gives off a stream of charged particles that form a bubble known as the heliosphere around our solar system. The solar wind travels at supersonic speed until it crosses a shockwave called the termination shock. At this point, the solar wind dramatically slows down and heats up in the heliosheath.

Launched on Sept. 5, 1977, Voyager 1 crossed the termination shock in December 2004 into the heliosheath. Scientists have used data from Voyager 1's Low-Energy Charged Particle Instrument to deduce the solar wind's velocity. When the speed of the charged particles hitting the outward face of Voyager 1 matched the spacecraft's speed, researchers knew that the net outward speed of the solar wind was zero. This occurred in June, when Voyager 1 was about 17 billion kilometers (10.6 billion miles) from the sun.

In 107 years man has gone from a 12 second 120 foot powered flight to 10.8 billion miles from the sun. During this period we have walked on the surface of the moon, explored our solar system’s planets and moon with orbiting spacecraft, developed a space shuttle that can orbit the earth and return, and placed a space station in orbit around earth.

Most of this was done under the leadership of the United States with monies funded from the taxpayers through Congress. Funding of scientific investigations is a legitimate function of Congress as one of the enumerated powers decreed them under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.

On May 25, 1961 then President John F. Kennedy announced before a joint session of Congress; “………Finally, if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take. Since early in my term, our efforts in space have been under review. With the advice of the Vice President, who is Chairman of the National Space Council, we have examined where we are strong and where we are not, where we may succeed and where we may not. Now it is time to take longer strides--time for a great new American enterprise--time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.”

“I therefore ask the Congress, above and beyond the increases I have earlier requested for space activities, to provide the funds which are needed to meet the following national goals:”

“First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations--explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon--if we make this judgment affirmatively; it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.”

“New objectives and new money cannot solve these problems. They could in fact, aggravate them further--unless every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space.”

I was 25 years old when Kennedy made this bold commitment. It was four years after the Soviet Union had launched its Sputnik — the first man-made object to orbit the earth. People in the United States were in shock that the USSR, our mortal Cold War adversary, could beat us into space. Americans believed we should be the ones to dominate the space race.

Kennedy’s bold proclamation was not meet with enthusiastic support throughout the land. On the right, the so called “hawks”, supported the Kennedy space proposal because they believed we needed to keep ahead of the USSR and it would be good for the booming defense industry. Senators and Congressmen with large defense contractors in their states or districts like “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA) were enthusiastic supporters — Jackson had Boeing.

The critics on the left, the “bleeding hearts”, had the usual complaints. Why spend money to go to the moon when we have all of these problems right here at home. We have poverty. Why not spend it on education? How about money for medical research — a cure for cancer? This will only make the defense contractors rich. It will escalate the Cold War and upset the Soviets. These were the major themes of the detractors from the left. As always they were wrong.

Yes, some defense contractors like Boeing, Convair, Lockheed, Martin-Marietta, McDonald-Douglas and others did get wealthy from the space program, but so did their stockholders. The moon program gave birth to many small contractors that built the little parts needed by the big prime contractors. Millions of jobs were created in to support the program — good paying jobs, jobs that would eventually spin off into other areas of our economy. This was the best way to help the poor.

The critics and probably the supporters could not have possibly seen the spin off industries and technical and scientific advancements that would accrue from the space program. The advances in electronics, computers, medicine and medical devices, communications, satellites that would predict weather and spy on our enemies, navigation (GPS), aviation, and logistics management are just a few of the benefits derived from Kennedy’s program.

It was on the order of Roosevelt’s building of the Panama Canal and Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway programs. These were legitimate government expenditures that brought about great benefits to our society and created wealth through jobs. Today the interstate highway system carries goods and passengers across the nation safely and efficiently — a system we could never afford today. It has created millions of jobs and thousands of small businesses. Likewise the space program has touched all Americans in their everyday life. Almost every bit of technology you touch can be traced back to the space program.

While the investment by the government was high at the beginning of the program it was well worth it. Yes, it created government jobs and NASA has become an over bloated bureaucracy today, but the industries and jobs created by the program far outweigh the negative. Almost every profession has benefited from the technical and scientific advances of the space program.

There two other benefits, perhaps the greater, that are harder to quantify. The first is knowledge. Man has built his civilization on accumulated knowledge. Copernicus and Galileo could not have envisioned solar wind, but their studies laid the groundwork for Voyager I. The volumes of knowledge gained from the space program has contributed to all aspects of our lives including space, our solar system, medicine, climate and communications to name a few. This knowledge will build on itself as we advance in our civilization.

Second is national pride. In 1977 my wife and I were in Paris, France visiting friends, Their 12 year-old boy Vincent was enthralled with the U.S. space program. He thought we were the greatest nation on the face of the earth because we could go to the moon and had made models of all of the rockets to date. Our ability to go into space gave a sense of national pride that was good for the nation. It gave us a sense of self and what we were capable off. Somewhere along the way we have lost this sense of national pride to a malaise of doubt and guilt for our accomplishments. This is attributable to the whining and recriminations of the left. They still believe that government monies should go to fight poverty and fund more useless and failed education programs.

We constantly bemoan a war on poverty, as war that we are not winning. This is far from true. First of all poverty is not an enemy, it’s a condition caused by a lack of wealth. Poverty can only be eliminated through the accumulation of wealth, not by government programs.

Wealth is acquired by providing goods and services (labor) to those who see value in the goods or services and have the ability to pay for them. Wealth is not acquired from government checks. It’s the biblical adage that if you feed a man a fish he will eat for a day, but if you teach him to fish he will eat for life. The only problem with this is that he has to learn to fish for the proper fish in the right place. If he fishes for carp and the public is buying salmon he made feed himself carp for the rest of life, but he will not gain wealth. The space program gave millions of Americans an opportunity to gain wealth in knowledge, financial gain and national pride.

1 comment:

  1. We’ve surely come a long way. Aircraft are now bigger, faster, and fly for such long distances…I marvel at these machines every day.