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Courage to Fly

by Marianne Plumridge

On a windy beach in Kittyhawk, North Carolina, one hundred years ago this December, a pair of brothers risked life and limb to fulfill a dream: powered flight. And although their first recorded powered efforts of ascent and duration were low and slow, the shockwaves of their achievement still reverberate around the world today. The whisper of Orville and Wilbur Wright's 'what if?' rapidly accelerated into a shout a decade later, when biplanes became the war-winning, and world-changing, development of World War I. Funny what practical applications technology can have when augmented with imagination and military expedience. Anyway, the whisper that became a shout resonated even louder with the dawn of jet technology, and pushed the limits of flight to the outer reaches of Earth's atmosphere: all within the span of a human life -- itself scant seconds against the chronicle of humankind and life on Earth. The Wright brothers, like myriads of dreamers before them, had tapped into the very essence of what defines human existence and consciousness: courage, curiosity and imagination. With such a turbulent combination, occasionally laced with danger, the possibilities know no bounds. It virtually enables our species to stride forward to see what's over the 'next hill': to gallop over it, to roar over it, to fly over it, and even to see the same hill from a craft in space -- and from those pinnacles beyond, dream anew. The Wright brothers, and their contemporaries, tapped the innate 'what if?' -- and, driven by careful calculation, inspiration, and imagination, they tempered foolhardiness with courage, and succeeded in helping our species to 'slip the surly bonds'. They found the courage to fly.

Flight, and its impact on human events, has come a long way since those fledgling steps.

In just under fifty years, aviation went from the flimsy and unsteady initial flight of the Wright Brothers, and their contemporaries, to jet-propelled vehicles. Then in the late 1950s, the world watched as mankind climbed atop the biggest rockets yet developed, and shot into space. Sadly, and perhaps shockingly, posterity shows scant regard for such exceptional and startling accomplishments: from baby steps to footprints on the Moon in less than sixty years. Who would have thought it? Admittedly, this new technology was literally fast-forwarded by two world wars, the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and the Cold War, throughout its evolution. But without conflict -- another inherent, survivalist, human characteristic -- there would be no space program, and no offshoot civilian technologies arising from it: satellite photography, satellite TV, cellular phones, satellite phones, digital anything, the internet, the information age, computers in cars and such, weather forecasting, medicinal research, technological employment, computer advancement, travel, specialized fabrics, astronomy, knowledge, etcetera. This covers a good majority, and then some, of mundane and everyday conveniences that are ever increasingly taken for granted. But the threads of continuity and interconnection are clear: self-propelling.

1957 heralded a world-shaking scientific shock in the form of the Soviet-launched Sputnik orbiter, followed four years later by Gagarin's epic flight. Spurred onto greater heights, America visibly demonstrated equal ability with the NASA Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs. All these assumed even greater national urgency against the backdrop of the Cold War with the now defunct Soviet Union. It was during this time that the most daring of feats was attempted and the most hair-raising of risks taken -- both with aplomb and applause. It required formidable courage to climb aboard those massive rockets, both Soviet and US, not knowing if this was the one that exploded beneath the occupant. Both sides suffered tragic losses: the most publicized perhaps being when US astronauts Grissom, Chaffee and White died in their capsule, Apollo 1, in a launch pad fire back in 1967. This tragedy underscored in bold relief the inherent dangers of the whole endeavor, but the investigating committee found and fixed the problems with the spacecraft, and progress swiftly continued on. It was, after all, a race, and the Soviets unfortunately fared little better in their Moon program. That learning curve was a raw and daunting experience for both sides, apparently. Today, many safeguards and backups for space-vehicles and missions exist, but none are completely foolproof. Witness again the narrow margin for tragic mishap as evidenced by the fatal accidents of the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia. Even so, the pilots and crews remain nonchalantly poised and eager to fly, to strap themselves to a rocket and thunder upwards toward the Heavens.

Is it courage, craziness, or sheer single-mindedness? Or rather the age-long dream to fly: higher, faster and farther than anyone else? To see what's out there and, better yet, to see if we can get there. Such wistful musing, backed by expensive and sophisticated technology has produced some spectacular results and legacies.

Take the Apollo Moon landing back in 1969 as an example. In America, there is a fallacious rumor mill attempting to persuade the public that that NASA never landed a man on the Moon in that year, through the simple expedient that "back then, they didn't have the technology that we have today". What these people fail to understand is that we had 'enough' technology, and 'enough' belief in ourselves as achievers to try it, dangers and all. And despite some large setbacks and losses, the goal was realized. Space technology of the late1960s was state of the art in its day, and even if it was primitive by today's standards, does not mean that it was 'incapable'. Give credit where credit is due. How many of 'Joe Public' today, with all their gadgets and high speed internet, realize that television first broadcast images in 1939? The television receivers were very few, and the broadcasts were suspended during World War II, but the technology was nonetheless viable and manifest. There were early basic versions of aircraft computers and communications systems used by aircraft and naval vessels on both sides during the same war. Rapid technology advancement during wartime further propelled discoveries and their applications to new heights, creating a subsequent boom in technical advancement throughout the ensuing peace. The regional conflicts of Korea and Vietnam further spurred this trend. Being inherently competitive by nature, humans are always susceptible to one-upmanship: either in personal image or conquest. Winning struggles that require offense and defense, self-protection or attack, more often than not comes down to who has the best 'toys' -- translated into technology, resources and manpower. Staying ahead of developments thus becomes equated with survival, ergo, as the old proverb aptly avers, 'Necessity is the mother of All Invention'.

But let's take it one step further. 'Joe Public' asks "but how can NASA (or anybody else, for that matter) send an ordinary man or woman into space, or to the Moon? I'd be too scared, myself" or "I can't see myself doing that, so how can I believe them doing it?"

The answer is, and remains: these are not 'ordinary people'. In fact there has never been a shortage of brave hearts willing to step into the void, for history abounds with personages of the caliber of John Glenn, Chuck Yeager, and Jacqueline Cochran. They may have been born ordinary, but they often question, they think, they do things, and they grow. They keep testing themselves, the strength of the 'envelope' -- both personal and physical -- and relentlessly shove against it.

These are the types of people who become test pilots, astronauts, speed-car and speed-boat racers, mountain climbers, extreme sports athletes, engineers, research doctors, even teachers, firefighters and police, and so on: the kind of people who ask "What if?" And because gender and race is no longer an obstacle to achievement, the envelope is inevitably going to be pushed back even further from a bigger pool of aspirants. If I can do this, can I take it one or more steps further, and do that too? Can I push myself just that bit farther? Can I surmount the barrier and see what's on the other side? Can I climb this mountain too, because I've climbed all the others before? Can I reach this person's mind and help them realize their potential is both real -- and awaiting? Can I physically create this device that I see in my mind? Can I fly higher and faster than ever before? The list is endless.

With these millions of questions asked each day, by as many people, now and throughout time itself, comes a certain pattern: an unquestionable drive to make dreams a reality -- no matter how daunting.

In the 1980s, while I was a member of the Royal Australian Air Force, I had a chance to witness this particular kind of drive and singular determination first hand. In 1984, I managed a Technical Publications Office at a fighter jet training and conversion unit, called No. 2OCU. I chatted and interacted with the pilots every day. One particular pilot had formerly been a member of the 'other ranks' working on the very flight line he now flew his jet off of. Let's call him Flight Lieutenant (FltLt) F. FltLt.F had succeeded in not only changing his career from technician to pilot, but transferred from the 'other ranks' to become an officer. This was a huge achievement in itself and a prime example of that 'drive and determination' that I admire. Anyway, in the early months of the year, FltLt.F went out waterskiing with several other pilots and their families. What happened next seems torn between comic farce and tragedy. FltLt.F broke his neck -- while trying to water-ski on his elbows. Don't ask. We all thought it totally incredulous at the time too, and not a little foolhardy but, you have to admit, it's kind of typical of the breed. Anyway, FltLt.F's fellow pilots cradled his body in the shallow water, surrounded by surfboards to shelter him from the waves, until the ambulance came. I didn't see FltLt.F for nearly eight months after that incident, but the other pilots eagerly reported the steps of his recovery and progress. FltLt.F was in traction for six weeks -- and the doctors believed that he might not walk again. He proved them wrong. His recovery was almost miraculous because he worked so hard at it. The doctors next believed that FltLt.F would never fly again, let alone 'pull Gs in a fighter jet'. He proved them wrong about that too. FltLt.F ultimately returned to his squadron and went on to get a clean bill of health, subsequently flying jets long into his career. Sound fanciful? Not really. I saw the scars on FltLt.F's neck myself. The muscles around the break in his neck were so built up, that he looked like he had no neck from behind. Also, the surgical scar looked as if one of those large industrial zippers had been deeply pressed into the skin of his spine and neck -- extending far up into his hairline. But such was the determination of this exceptional individual to fulfill his lifetime dream. Happily for him -- and us -- he is not alone.

Like pilots, and the test pilot pool from where they originated nearly fifty years ago, astronauts of today are of the same breed as FltLt.F. All of them, be they pilots, engineers or assorted mission specialists: they have the same determination and discipline, and the courage to fly high and far. So it irks me somewhat, when revisionists try to persuade people that "we never went to the Moon".

There are enough problems currently thrown at NASA and its subsequent achievements, not to mention the latest spate of failures, to have fabrications bent on undermining a fabulous heritage. In spite of these however, NASA -- and the human spirit it embodies -- soldiers on. For the second time in twenty years, the space shuttle launch program has been sidelined by tragedy: the loss of the Shuttle Columbia in February 2003. The reports of the investigation surrounding the accident are currently shunted to less prominent places in daily newspapers around the world while the peoples of many countries watch a battle of wills and mutually destructive conflict take place in the Middle East. And this week, we found out that the previous good news about the Space Shuttle returning to flight next Spring, has been pushed back until Fall of 2004. Another set back, perhaps, but NASA has endured them before. I still retain belief and hope that the space missions will continue -- either, with the current shuttles or their successors -- and that we will fly again.

I sometimes think that catastrophe often acts as a reality check when we become too complacent, or we think that space flight is too boring or easy. Piloting jets, spacecraft, and even driving cars is still a dangerous venture no matter how advanced the vehicles become. It still comes down to the human element: the skill, reflexes, knowledge and courage of the driver/pilot to make a vehicle operate safely. When tragedy occurs and a vehicle is lost, we evaluate the cause, mourn our losses, fix the problems, then climb back into the saddle and try again. To do anything less is to wantonly waste the sacrifice of those who have died.

As I write this, The People's Republic of China has placed an astronaut in orbit around the Earth and safely returned him home. It is that country's first such success, much like John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth back in 1962. It certainly smacks of the heady days when NASA and its astronauts and engineers were breaking barriers 'by the seat of their pants' and taking humanity forward into the future in giant leaps of faith. It makes me wonder if the Chinese Space Agency will attempt putting a man on the Moon by the end of this decade: just like America did in the 1960s. And if America, sorely needing genuine heroes as opposed to tantrum and violence-driven celebrities, will pick up the gauntlet suddenly thrown at its collective feet.

How can we not? Humanity is made up of pioneers, explorers and 'what if?' types. Within all of us resides a primal force to explore, and the potential to act upon it, and the 'courage to fly'. Despite adversity and public indifference, the 'right stuff' lives!

Marianne Plumridge, October 2003

For Hal Clement. Who flew high and far, and had the grace to take some of us along for the ride ...


© Marianne Plumridge 2004.

With thanks to John C. Fredriksen, Ph. D., Louise M. Kleba (United Space Alliance -- FCOD/NASA), and the RISFC Writers Group, for discussion, inspiration, and enthusiasm.

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