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Langley flight attempt
Samuel Langley had the backing of the War Department and tens of thousands of dollars to develop an airplane, but failed spectacularly. (credit: Smithsonian)

The Vision for Space Exploration and the retirement of the Baby Boomers (part 3)

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We have 100 years of empirical data, not just 40

Sir Winston Churchill is reported to have said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” We will now go back in history over a hundred years to the US Government’s first attempt to invent flight, and show a striking similarity with the government’s repeated failures to achieve cheap and reliable access to space. This is a very interesting story, which has many parallels to modern times. In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, it will be “Deja vu all over again.”

History is littered with examples of brilliant, yet arrogant, people who knew what was, and was not, possible. One of the most accomplished scientists of the 19th Century was Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society, the United Kingdom’s national academy of science. Lord Kelvin defined the absolute temperature scale (named after him), created the first physics laboratory at a British university, conducted research leading to the second law of thermodynamics, championed the undersea cable, introduced Bell’s telephone to Britain, published more than 600 scientific papers, and filed 70 patents. And in 1895, Lord Kelvin declared: “Heavier than air flying machines are impossible.”

In spite of “conventional wisdom”, in 1898 the Department of War decided to fund a $50,000 program by Dr. Samuel P. Langley to develop a practical human flying machine. At the time, it was the largest research project ever funded by the Department of War. An advisory committee, with two officers from the Navy, two from the Army, and a mathematician from the US Naval Observatory, concluded that Langley’s project could help with wartime reconnaissance, “communication between stations isolated from each other by ordinary means”, and serving as “an engine of offense”.2

History is littered with examples of brilliant, yet arrogant, people who knew what was, and was not, possible.

It was logical for the US Government to hire the best and brightest program manager it could find. By all reasonable criteria, Dr. Langley was that person. James Tobin, author of To Conquer the Air, writes, “In public stature and prestige, Langley was the most prominent scientist in the United States. His best friend was Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. Langley was a frequent guest at the White House.”

Dr. Langley was a brilliant visionary who dedicated the later years of his life to inventing the airplane. After becoming Secretary of the Smithsonian in 1886, he immediately instituted a basic research program on flight using the Smithsonian’s resources. In 1896, following ten years of sustained experimentation, Langley finally proved that human flight was achievable when his 16-foot unmanned flying machine, powered by a steam engine, flew nearly one mile.

Langley then set out to raise $50,000 to take his experimental research to the next level. It took two years for his fundraising campaign to succeed. He would soon direct a full-time staff, which reached about 10 people in size. Langley told the War Department3 with “confidence” that “the machine will be completely built and ready for trial within a year”—meaning by 1899. Langley would spend the entire $50,000 provided by the War Department, run out of money, and then raise another estimated $20,000 from other sources—and take five years until the first flight test in 1903.

Dr. Langley made two flight attempts. The tests were open to the public and the media, and two members of Congress were explicitly invited. The first attempt failed on October 7, 1903, but since the vehicle incurred only minor damage a second attempt was possible. The second attempt failed on December 8, 1903, and destroyed the craft. After the second public failure, the project became known as “Langley’s Folly”. Both the media and members of Congress harshly attacked Langley as the vast majority still believed practical human flight was impossible and was therefore a waste of public funds. The New York Times published a memorable article on October 9, 1903 stating:

The ridiculous fiasco which attended the attempt at aerial navigation in the Langley flying machine was not unexpected… it might be assumed that the flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years.4

Both the Smithsonian and the Department of War lost their appetite for continuing. The Smithsonian’s regents forbid Langley from continuing his research. The Department of War concluded “we are still far from the ultimate goal [of human flight].”5 This was an unfortunate ending for a great American.

John D. Anderson, Jr., the curator for aerodynamics for the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and the Glenn L. Martin Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Aerospace Engineering for the University of Maryland, concludes in his book Inventing Flight (page 145):

In terms of contributions to the technology of early flight, Langley’s full-size aerodrome made none, except for its powerful, lightweight engine. Compared to the Wright Brothers’ technical maturity at the time, Langley’s was almost retrograde. The aerodrome failed as a system; it had marginal aerodynamics, excellent propulsion, and marginal longitudinal and directional control… It had no lateral control, and the structural aspect of the system proved a total failure. Even the excellent propulsion may have been a potential source of failure; had the aerodrome been able to stay together long enough for a flight, it would have been vastly over-powered and may not have been able to withstand the heavier airloads that would have resulted from flying too fast.

Hindsight is 20-20, so it is now easy to see that Dr. Langley was not America’s best and brightest on the subject of inventing flight. But nobody knew this at the time. If you put yourself in the position of the Department of War in 1898—if you had already decided to fund a centrally-controlled R&D program to design and build a practical human flying machine—the most rational and logical course of action was to hire Dr. Langley to be the program manager.

If you put yourself in the position of the Department of War in 1898—if you had already decided to fund a centrally-controlled R&D program to design and build a practical human flying machine—the most rational and logical course of action was to hire Dr. Langley to be the program manager.

How could anybody know that America’s best and brightest on the subject of flight were two brothers who owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio? Not even the Wright Brothers knew. This is clear from the following letter from Wilbur Wright, who wrote to the Smithsonian6 on May 30, 1899, asking for information.

Dear Sirs,

I have been interested in the problem of mechanical and human flight ever since ever since as a boy I constructed a number of bats [toy planes – Editor] of various sizes… My observations since have only convinced me more firmly that human flight is possible and practicable. It is only a question of knowledge and skill as in all acrobatic feats… I am an enthusiast, but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine… I am about to begin a systematic study of the subject in preparation for practical work to which I expect to devote what time I can spare from my regular business. I wish to obtain such papers as the Smithsonian Institution has published on this subject, and if possible a list of other works in print in the English language… I wish to avail myself of all that is already known and then if possible add my mite to help on the future worker who will attain final success.

Yours truly

Wilbur Wright

If even Wilbur Wright did not know what was to come, how could anybody know that a couple of American entrepreneurs would do what most thought was impossible—invent the first practical airplane—and do so in their spare time as a hobby? How could anybody know that these two brothers, who did not graduate from high school, would take just four years to overcome a combination of vexing problems—highly-efficient propellers, effective lift, and (most importantly) active control—which Dr. Langley would fail to solve over a seventeen-year period?

It was unknowable.

In sum total, Dr. Samuel Langley spent an estimated $70,000 trying to invent a practical flying airplane, and failed. The Wright Brothers working part-time over four years spent an estimated $1,000, and succeeded.

We can now see that the War Department’s mistake was not in its specific choice of Dr. Langley to manage the program, but by choosing to organize our national effort as a big government program that could only afford to make one specific attempt to solve the problem. The War Department’s paradigm in 1898 was to choose “The Solution”. When they failed, the entire initiative came to a stop. In this respect, Dr. Langley’s noble attempt was the equivalent of the repeated (noble) failures by the Shuttle, NASP, X-33, and the National Aerospace Initiative to achieve cheap and reliable access to space.

Is there a better way? Is there an approach that does not put all our eggs into one (or even two) baskets?

Our answer is “Yes”.

Our recommendation: a third way

We propose that this nation adopt an old, but empirically-proven, mindset: “Build an Industry, Not a Program”.

This mindset requires that we take an empirically-skeptical position on a variety of issues. First, that we don’t know the solution, nor do we know who will succeed. Second, nobody truly knows, and if they say they do, they are demonstrating empirical arrogance. Third, while there are solutions among our best and brightest, we just can’t say with high confidence that any single attempt will succeed. Fourth, a public-private partnership approach that builds off the unique strengths of the government, and leverages the innovation of America’s best and brightest—its entrepreneurs—will enable the best solutions to rise to the top.

As the central-organizing structure for this strategy, we recommend the establishment of an “advisory council on entrepreneurial space access” modeled after the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA). The NACA brought all key parties (Army, Navy, Smithsonian, and the Bureau of Standards) to the same table to focus on the practical challenges of improving aeronautics in this country. Nobody is fulfilling that NACA role today, bringing together all the key parties, for the American space transportation industry.

The NACA had a mindset that was fundamentally open to broad partnerships, and implicitly saw its job as “Building an Industry”. More specifically, the NACA did not see industry as being the competition—it saw industry as its customer. Industry would design, develop, own, and operate airplanes, and the NACA’s job was to help industry succeed.

If we adopt an NACA mindset for the critical national goal of CRATS, no one program will become “The Solution”, and there will be no “National” program or initiative.

If we adopt an NACA partnership mindset, there will still be programs, but the programs will be designed to broadly support the growth and development industry, rather than competing with industry. NACA had many programs for fundamental research in aeronautics, many programs to develop new technology subsystems such as cowlings, leading edges, engines, and propellers, many programs to construct national facilities that were shared with industry, and flew lots x-vehicles from the X-1 to the X-15. At no point in NACA’s history did it put itself in the role of designing, building, or operating an operational airplane, which would have made it a direct competitor to industry.

If we adopt an NACA mindset for the critical national goal of CRATS, no one program will become “The Solution”, and there will be no “National” program or initiative. The programs will be smaller, more numerous, and more frequent. They will be small enough that any one program can fail without risking the entire initiative because of negative media attention. They will be numerous enough that the risk of failure is diversified. They will be frequent enough that we will make steady progress even in the face of failure by individual programs. This approach, if adopted, will eliminate the starts and stops we have experienced over the last 40 years by using the big program mindset to achieving CRATS.

In part four of this essay, we will examine the history of the Wright Brothers and the early years of flight for general lessons learned that can be applied to the challenge of cheap and reliable access to space. We will show that even though America invented flight, that we quickly lost that leadership position because we went from one extreme (a big government program mindset) to the other extreme (a relatively hands-off laissez-faire mindset). We will show how this failure of policy allowed the rest of the world to quickly pass the United States, and how this created a national security crisis, which led to the creation of the NACA. We will show that our nation is (again) repeating these mistakes, as there is no equivalent today to the NACA for helping build an American commercial space transportation industry. We will show that the earliest accomplishments of the NACA cost very little money, and were extremely valuable to building an industry. We will show how this model can be adopted again, at very little cost, to help America achieve the strategically critical goal of cheap and reliable access to space.


  1. The NASA cost deflator is at
  2. Langley Scrapbook, 1897-98, RU 7003, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
  3. Langley Scrapbook, 1897-98, RU 7003, Smithsonian Institution Archives, “Extract from Proceeding of Board of Ordnance and Fortification”
  4. See copy of full NY Times article at
  5. Charles Gibbs-Smith, Aviation: An Historical Survey, p. 67
  6. McFarland, editor, The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, Vol. 1, 4–5