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.
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?