Advancing Aeronautics and Space

Collier Trophy


Whenever I am in Washington on business, I try to carve out time to visit the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.  Today  my meetings allowed a lunch time dash to the museum where I spent much of my time in the Golden Age of Flight gallery. 

Among other artifacts, many of the ornate trophies awarded in the early days of aviation are on display there: the Harmon, the Schneider, the Bendix, the Thompson.  Among them is the Collier Trophy, an award established in 1911.  The list of winners through the years is a veritable who’s who in aviation:  Wright, Curtiss, Martin, Huges, Yeager, Crossfield, Whitcomb, Rutan.  Its history makes it one of the most prestigious awards that anyone or any organization in the aerospace field can aspire to win.  This afternoon the National Aeronautic Association announced this year’s winner is the International Space Station.  What a wonderful and unexpected award!  What a confirmation of the hard work of many nations and many individuals over the last two decades. 

Well done, well deserved, and congratulations indeed.


The reasons that I visited that particular gallery of the NASM today is my specific interest in how early aviation progressed from dreams and primitive machines to become a vital part of our daily lives and a significant part of our economy.  The 20’s and 30’s are covered so briefly in so many aviation history books that it takes significant study to begin to understand this rich and complex period of history. 

I am reading Jimmy Doolittle’s autobiography “I Could Never Be So Lucky Again.”  What an amazing man he was and what an amazing time he lived in.  Doolittle did not win the Collier trophy but he racked up plenty of the others, many of them for air races.  During the 1920’s and 1930’s there were many air races sponsored by various organizations.  The Thompson trophy was awarded at the National Air Races in Cleveland every summer, and Doolittle won it in the Gee-Bee racer.  That beast was as close to a death machine as has ever been built.  After his victory in 1932, Doolittle gave this evaluation of the air races of the Golden Age of Aviation: 

“I felt the time had clearly arrived to examine the role of the air races.  They had served a useful purpose by arousing public interest in aviation.  They had also become the inspiration and proving ground for new concepts in aircraft design and construction.  Cockpit venting, retractable gear, and bold new wind and fuselage designs were born in the competition for the various trophies.  But the price in planes and pilots had been high.  I thought aviation should now begin to serve world commerce rather than be considered mostly a sport.”

During those years, aviation was advancing through competition for records as well as trophies, advancing in the development of the fledgling passenger service, advancing through philanthropic foundations like the Gugenheim which gave money for research and development.  And advancing by the efforts of a new government agency which has a birthday today:  The National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics: the NACA, founded on March 3, 1915.  From its founding through 1958, the NACA conducted research and development on the problems of aviation.  The fruit of this work was an aviation industry vastly safer and more efficient than it was before.  And of course, in 1958, the NACA organization became the foundation of a new national agency:  NASA.  Even today there is probably no airplane in production anywhere in the world that does not incorporate advances first developed by the NACA. 

Unfortunately, any student of history of aviation will tell you the greatest advances in aviation occurred during the years surrounding the two World Wars.  One can only hope that advances in space technology will not have such a terrible foundation; except of course it already has:  German rocket technology of WWII and the ICBM race of the cold war.

So I am pondering today, both on duty and off, how best can space technology and space access be advanced?  What lessons can we learn from the golden age of aviation to more rapidly develop a space flight industry that can approximate aviation today?  And what lessons can we learn to avoid?  That list should start with the great air mail scandal of 1934.  That event was a near disaster for early aviation, at least in America.   

Exploring Space as only Robert McCall can imagine

 On my way out of the museum, I paused to reflect at the giant mural which Robert McCall painted on the south lobby wall.  We lost Bob a few days ago and his genius will be sorely missed in the coming days







The words from Jim Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13 echoed unbidden in my mind: 


“I sometimes catch myself looking up at the Moon, remembering the changes of fortune in our long voyage, thinking of the thousands of people who worked to bring the three of us home. I look up at the Moon and wonder, when will we be going back, and who will that be?”





When will we be going back, and who will that be?

8 thoughts on “Advancing Aeronautics and Space”

  1. In regards to the airmail scandal in 1934, the resulting consequences, namely President Roosevelt nationalizing the airmail service for 18 months, ironically proved to be one of the best things to happen for both commercial and military aviation. Though airmail carriers were slowly expanding their passenger service, the loss of the airmail contracts to the Army Air Force forced airmail carriers to accelerate the development of passenger aviation aircrafts in the 1930’s. As a result, airplane manufacturers began developing metal airframes, pressurized cabins, instrument flying, radio beacon navigation. The 1930’s was one of the most innovative, productive decades for commercial aviation. In fact, World War II actually delayed the development of the newer commercial passenger aircrafts. The scandal also help break up several vertical monopolies that had formed between airplane manufacturers and airmail carriers.

    On the military side, the Army Air Force found out just how poorly trained their pilots were compared to airmail carrier pilotss. Airmail carriers could fly at night, in bad weather, and long distances. None of the military pilots had those kinds of flying skills. The Army also did not have the airplanes or facilities to handle bulk mail. Consequently, 18 months after nationalizing airmail service, the Roosevelt administration begrudgingly reopened airmail to private competition. The US Army Air Force was simply in over its head and could not provide consistent mail service. When private carriers resumed the airmail contracts, they never returned to the profitability of the previous years. The carriers chosed instead to focus more and more of their investments in passenger service. The military recognized and began providing better training and buying more advanced aircrafts. A good book to read is ‘Conquest of the Skies, A History of Commercial Aviation in America’ by Carl Solberg.

    Gary Miles

  2. After reading the Mars Wars article you referred to in a previous blog it reminded me that the Freedom Space Station program, which became the IIS program, came within 1 vote in the House of Reps of being cancelled back in June 1993.

    1 vote. That close.

    It would be interesting if such a bill was introduced today, in 2010, 17 years later, would it even make it to the floor of the House or Congress. I doubt it. If it managed to get to a vote I serious doubt too many elected representatives would vote to terminate the ISS program.

    I hope, in that context, the House and Congress have the foresight not to cancel the Constellation Program in whole. I would like to see the private companies funded for LEO human transport operations to the ISS, even a Shuttle extension for a couple of years, but the major elements of the Constellation Program continued and funding increased to develop Orion and a heavy launch system, whether that is Ares 5 or something similar.

    I just hope when the vote comes it is not as close as in June 1993. Maybe if history repeats itself someone will be making footprints on the lunar regolith again 17 years after a close vote. Roll on 2027.

  3. We wish that the development of technologies is made by a large love for evolution. There should be no greater stimulus than doing what they like: this is extremely productive.

    I salute to NASA, which has its roots in NACA, the years of abundant contribution to science and technology. Congratulations!

  4. A major difference between pre-WW2 aviation and the issue of travel beyond geostationary orbit is that no one has identified a primarily commercial reason to go further.

    If Geostationary orbit was a far as we wanted people to go, NASA should be broken up into a series of national laboratories that supported commercial and scientific work in space.

    For example:

    –JPL and the deep space communication network would send robots to explore deep space.

    –JSC would specialise as a training centre for commercial and scientific astronauts.

    –MSFC would build space telescopes & scientific instruments, it would research propulsion systems and research living and working in LEO.

    –KSC would manage launch facilities having leased out launched pads to private companies.

    –SSC, GRC, Langley, Dryden would continue their industry support activities. Other centres could well close.

    –Michoud could be sold.

    –NASA HQ would be abolished and all the laboratories would belong to a renamed Department of Energy which already manages a number of similar national laboratories.

    Sending people into the solar system is the only reason that currently justifies a NASA (the second ‘A’ stands for Administration) to pull together all the elements for solar system exploration.

    Constellation was about participating in LEO travel to shakedown spacecraft and components for journeys further afield. How this will be be addressed by a new program I await with interest.

  5. Wish our day job, an Indian subsidiary, allowed sightseeing on business trips. We’re supposed to work 16/7 while traveling. No communication with family or sightseeing.

    India just announced the fulfillment of 100,000 orders for electric cars & a 50% increase in human spaceflight funding. China just announced its space station would be launched in 2011. The future & all our modern conveniences are being invented in Asia by people who are giving up everything for progress.

  6. Just a quick comment to say that even when I don’t comment, I’m reading.

    And to point out this would be another post to tag with “air mail”.

    I’m glad we have you, Mr. Wayne Hale.

  7. This is a repeat comment. I wasn’t sure it was accepted when I originally sent it.

    Air Mail Scandal – See
    which is part of the the Smithsonian’s story of the Airline Expansion and innovation 1927-1941. It’s roots were the reform efforts embodied in the “McNary-Watres Act of 1930, which changed how airlines were paid and made subsidies more fair, redrew the nation’s air route system, and provided economic incentives to encourage airlines to carry passengers.” Prior to that, what passed for airlines carried mail, but few passengers. The thinking (though not necessarily the wording) was to partition up the market area and thereby encourage longer term investment in multi-engine aircraft which were necessary to carry passengers, and reward innovation by providing bonuses for them. The outcome had some success but was roiled up in politics because as always happens in these kinds of cases, there are winners and losers and the losers throw their support to the opposite party, in this case, FDR and the democrats who were running against Hoover. FDR won, and in 1934, he canceled all the mail contracts and the Army started carrying the mail again. See the article at the site above for more details.

    So what is to be learned from this incident as it might relate to the furtherance of human space flight? I imagine that each side can find one of more lessons to support its view. The way I would describe it is that the airplane was a “bottom-up” development, looking for a market. The Wright brothers sought out the military for further funding, reasoning that the airplane could be a more flexible surveillance device than balloons. The military picked up on the use first as an observation platform for WWI as well as some use for ordinance delivery. The so-called dogfights were thrilling but probably had little to do with the outcome of that war. Gen. Billy Mitchell eventually demonstrated (Jun-Jul 1921) that [German] Navy warships could be sunk with airplane delivered bombs. The War Department could justify a mission need, and did not have to have a profit margin. As to a civilian market, what I would note is that there were far fewer regulations in those early days, and the risk tolerance for failure was somewhat higher. Airplanes were a novelty and the barnstormers were flying anyone who would pay for a “thrill ride”.

    Such is not the case for human space flight. Let’s start with risk tolerance. We accept, in the US, upwards of 40,000 deaths/year on our highways with little alarm (unless you know the victim, or someone can gin up a multi-million dollar lawsuit), but one commercial airplane goes down and it gets all sorts of coverage and formal investigations. Military aircraft, especially helicopters, have numerous non-combat related crashes with fatalities – few civilians blink. When people are lost in a spaceflight, we get 2-3 year downtimes (shuttle era) and threats of extinction. Note that the Apollo 1 fire investigation was raised to Congress but was dealt with quickly, primarily (in my opinion) on the strength of Frank Borman’s plea to Congress to “stop this witch hunt and get on with the program”, or words to that effect. Why the difference? I would suggest it’s that we do not have a dependency on human spaceflight as we do on cars, commercial aircraft and military aircraft; and human spaceflight is an endeavor of the Federal Government.

    The second problem is cost. Even if we had higher risk tolerance, it’s still expensive to build devices that will accelerate reasonable weights from 0 to ~25,000 fps, especially if one wants/needs to limit the instantaneous acceleration to 3-4 g’s max. And to ~36,000 fps (~40% more) if one wants to reach escape velocity. Many efforts have been made and approaches studied to reduce these costs. The original Shuttle cost advantage was predicated on volume, i.e., a high flight rate, as much as once per week. This did not come to pass. As to re-usability, I have heard, but not validated, that at less than around 6 flights per year, it would be cheaper to discard all the Shuttle SRB’s after one use, build new casings and avoid the cost of parachutes and retrieval and refurbisnment. In normal industrial environments, cost per unit typically goes down as a function of the number of units produced. There can be a viable market for low volume units as there is for Ferrari’s, but there are relatively few who can afford one.

    A third problem is limited space in LEO. Because of speeds and other factors, there are fewer spaces to operate in LEO that are free of risk (debris, radiation, etc.). This seems to be related to speed mostly and therefore reaction time. Highways are more or less two dimensional and speeds are relatively low. So are the skills of the users. Airways are three dimensional and the speeds are 5-10 times faster, and due to expense, the landing areas are limited so must be rigidly controlled to avoid crashes. The operators are more highly trained but their reaction margins are less. The LEO environment is also three dimensional but the speeds are 2-3 orders of magnitude faster. Operators are also highly trained but have much less capability to do any maneuvering, due primarily to lack of energy. On the other hand, for many applications, there may be little need to do much maneuvering once the desired location is reached. But as the desirable space becomes occupied, the accident risk increases (recall the Mir-Progress collision years ago).

    The fourth problem is lack of clear markets in which to make a profit. There are a few people who value the experience enough to pay $20M-30M to fly on the Soyuz, as the Russians have demonstrated. That market segment is pretty limited for both user and provider. Two orders of magnitude cheaper, though with somewhat less content, will be Virgin Galactic, soon, I hope. We shall see how large that market is. It might be comparable to the very earliest US commercial airlines. The LEO “mail subsidy equivalent” for the US consists of contracts to take stuff to the ISS. A followon might be Bigelow’s notion of tourist hotels or something similar in LEO. Until a critical mass is reached, whatever that is, counting on the non-government public for revenue is risky. Hence the need for some kind of subsidy.

    What is the FAA’s role? Assume optimistically that the commercial human spaceflight world does expand to LEO. To what degree? What sort of regulations will ensue? How many “lifeboats” will be required for a “hotel” in space? What will TSA’s role be? What regulations will attach to drugs developed in LEO? The standard FDA testing protocols? What frightened groups will arise if this gets serious (note the fears with genetically engineered crops)?

    Finally, what is the economic incentive to go beyond LEO (remember that it takes ~40% more energy)?

    Is NASA’s role to fall back to the NACA role regarding human spaceflight? Carried to its logical conclusion that’s essentially where the Administration’s 2011 budget will take it.

    Jack Knight

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