(p. A21) SEATTLE — ONE clear winter day in 1909, in Hampshire, England, a young man named Geoffrey de Havilland took off in a twin-propeller motorized flying machine of his own design, built of wood, piano wire and stiff linen hand-stitched by his wife. The launch was flawless, and soon he had an exhilarating sensation of climbing almost straight upward toward the brilliant blue sky. But he soon realized he was in terrible trouble.
The angle of ascent was unsustainable, and moments later de Havilland’s experimental plane crashed, breaking apart into a tangled mass of shards, splinters and torn fabric, lethal detritus that could easily have killed him even if the impact of smashing into the ground did not. Somehow, he survived and Sir Geoffrey — he was ultimately knighted as one of the world’s great aviation pioneers — went on to build an astonishing array of military and civilian aircraft, including the world’s first jet airliner, the de Havilland Comet.
I thought immediately of de Havilland on Friday when I heard that Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, a rocket-powered vehicle designed to take well-heeled tourists to the edge of space, had crashed on a flight over the Mojave Desert, killing one test pilot and seriously injuring the other.
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Certainly the Wright brothers and others like de Havilland were involved in what we now view as an epic quest, but many experts of the day were certain that flight, however interesting, was destined to be not much more than a rich man’s hobby with no practical value.
“The public has greatly over-estimated the possibilities of the aeroplane, imagining that in another generation they will be able to fly over to London in a day,” said a Harvard expert in 1908. “This is manifestly impossible.” Two other professors patiently explained that while laymen might think that “because a machine will carry two people another may be constructed that will carry a dozen,” in fact “those who make this contention do not understand the theory of weight sustentation in the air.”
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There will be tragedies like the crash of SpaceShipTwo and nonlethal setbacks such as the fiery explosion, also last week, of a remote-controlled rocket intended for a resupply mission to the International Space Station. There will be debates about how to improve regulation without stifling innovation. Some will say private industry can’t do the job — though it’s not as if the NASA-sponsored Apollo or space shuttle missions went off without a hitch (far from it, sadly).
But at the heart of the enterprise there will always be obsessives like Sir Geoffrey, who forged ahead with his life’s work of building airplanes despite his own crash and, incredibly, the deaths of two of his three sons while piloting de Havilland aircraft, one in an attempt to break the sound barrier. Getting to routine safety aloft claimed many lives along the way, and a hundred years from now people will agree that in that regard, at least, spaceships are no different from airplanes.
For the full commentary, see:
SAM HOWE VERHOVEK. “Not a Flight of Fancy.” The New York Times (Tues., NOV. 4, 2014): A21.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date NOV. 3, 2014.)