A Niche in Time: First Flight

Richard Branson addresses the crowd before SpaceShipTwo’s glide flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Part 5 of 5

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The morning of Dec. 3, 2016, began like so many others in Mojave. The first rays of dawn gave way to a brilliant sunrise that revealed a cloudless, clear blue sky over California’s High Desert.

This was hardly newsworthy. For most of the year, Mojave doesn’t really have weather, just temperatures and wind speeds. It had been literally freezing overnight; the mercury was at a nippy 28º F (-2.2º C) at 4 a.m. As for Mojave’s famous winds – an enemy of roofs, trees and big rigs, but the lifeblood of thousands of wind turbines that cover the landscape west of town – there really weren’t any. It was basically a flat calm.

In other words, it was a perfect day to fly.

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A Niche in Time: Human Flight Through the Ages

Montgolfier brothers balloon

UPDATE: The series is now complete with publication of parts 4 and 5. Links to all the stories are below.

During an extended stay in Paris some years ago, I ventured out beyond the Le Boulevard Périphérique to the Le Musée de l’air et de l’espace at Le Bouget. Having made many a pilgrimage to the American museum with a similar name on the National Mall in Washington, DC, I was interested to see how the French interpreted the history of human flight. It was an eye-opening experience.

Having often gazed up at the Wright Flyer suspended over my head in the Milestones of Flight Gallery, I was accustomed to thinking of human flight as a strictly 20th century development. But, the French museum dated it back 120 years earlier to a pair of equally ambitious brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfiers, who launched piloted balloons. A good part of the museum was devoted to this much earlier phase of flight.

I was reminded of the visit some years later watching HBO’s adaptation of David McCullough’s book, “John Adams.” There’s a great scene of the acerbic, candid-to-a-fault founding father watching a Montgolfier balloon launch with his urbane and delightful wife, Abigail, and the equally urbane and delightful Thomas Jefferson.

It’s a terrific scene in a great mini-series. Watching it you get a sense of the wonder that Parisians felt at the time watching something that would have seemed impossible to them not long before. There’s something universal about flying that excites people no matter what century they live in or what technology is used. The same sense of wonder and excitement connects the Parisians of 1793 to early 20th century Americans who saw an airplane for the first time and those who watched Alan Shepard’s launch from Cape Canaveral in 1961.

Despite the differences in time periods and technologies, there are some fundamental things that are required for all major advances in flight regardless of when they are made: imagination, daring, physical courage and financial backing. And luck. No small amount of luck.

Today, Parabolic Arc begins a five-part series looking at three different periods in powered human flight. We will compare and contrast them to see what essential lessons can be drawn from them. If the first two installments appear to have little to do with spaceflight, please be patient. All will be revealed.

The first post takes us not to 18th century France but to a lake in Southern Germany at the turn of the last century where an aristocrat gave the Montgolfier brothers’ invention a major upgrade.

The Series

Part 1: Behemoths of the Sky
Part 2: “One of the worst catastrophes in the world”
Part 3: “Lock the doors”
Part 4: One Chute
Part 5: First Flight

A Look at the History of Suborbital Spaceflight

Neil Armstrong with the X-15 on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

With Richard Branson once again predicting that Virgin Galactic will fly SpaeShipTwo into space before the end of the year, it seems like a good time to take a look at the history of suborbital spaceflight.

The number of manned suborbital flights varies depending upon the definition you use. The internationally recognized boundary is 100 km (62.1 miles), which is also known as the Karman line. The U.S. Air Force awarded astronaut wings to any pilot who exceeded 80.5 km (50 miles).

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Boldly Going Where 14 Men Have Gone Before

For nearly a dozen years, Virgin Galactic has used the number of individuals who have flown into space as a target to shoot for once the company began suborbital space tourism service. Virgin promised to double the number, which was around 500 when the company launched in 2004, within the first year of operation. That year was originally targeted for 2007 in the confident days after the success of SpaceShipOne.

That goal has long since faded away, and it’s unlikely Virgin will double the number of space travelers during the first year. In any event, the number of space travelers cited by Virgin has always been a bit misleading. The company’s well heeled customers, who are paying upwards of $250,000 per flight, will actually be joining a much more elite group on their suborbital flights.

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