Courage to Fly
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
Flight, and its impact on human events, has come a long way since those
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
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
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
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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