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What lessons do the advances and setbacks of early 20th century aviation offer for achieving cheap access to space in the early 21st century? (credit: Library of Congress)

Achieving cheap access to space: the foundation of commercialization (part 1)

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Cheap access to space, or CATS, is the most critical national and economic security objective for the coming decades. For America to dominate space in 21st Century, there is one—just one—capability that matters: cheap access to space.

America needs a proven and pragmatic strategy to achieve cheap access to space. American free enterprise is working in space. Let’s build off America’s strength: we are the land of free enterprise innovation. Our national strategy should be to amplify and reinforce natural market forces.

In the 21st Century, an aptitude for commercial space is a distinguishing feature of nations, that are, or will be, great in space.

We are in the middle of a paradigm shift in the space industry. The old Apollo paradigm is dying and a new one is taking its place. This new paradigm of public-private partnerships is actually quite old, trusted, and proven. It is also quite American. It is the model implemented by the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), which helped America recapture world leadership in aviation in the 1920s and 1930s.

Alfred T. Mahan, a visionary sea power theorist from the late 19th Century, established the linkage between power and free enterprise a long time ago. Admiral Mahan, the father of the Steel Navy, wrote the following:1

“If sea power be really based upon a peaceful and extensive commerce, aptitude for commercial pursuits must be a distinguishing feature of the nations that have at one time or another been great upon the sea.”

In the 21st Century, an aptitude for commercial space is a distinguishing feature of nations, that are, or will be, great in space. The corollary is also true: the nation that dominates future commercial space markets will accrue great advantage to its national security, as well as great wealth for its people.

America’s future in space depends on CATS

Whichever country achieves cheap access to space first will start a virtuous cycle that will deliver tremendous economic and security benefits to that nation. This nation will dominate the carrying trade and create new markets, which will drive new technologies and new capabilities, which will increase flight rates and lower launch costs, which will allow that nation to expand into more new markets. Thus a virtuous cycle begins. CATS is the connection between space commerce and space power.

CATS will eventually emerge from pure market forces, if left alone. The same would have been true for the transcontinental railroad and for five-hour airplane flights between San Francisco and New York City. Eventually private industry would have built a railroad to tie together North America. Eventually private industry would have built airplanes with the ability to cross the Atlantic, or the vast American continent in one flight.

However, our nation cannot afford to wait that long. CATS is critical to the security of our nation. CATS is critical to the security of the free world.

The problem with the “Big Program” mindset

History demonstrates that the “Big Government Program” mindset almost always leads to a strategy of “Pick the Solution,” which often leads to failure where the criteria for success include low cost, reliability, and dependability. This does not mean that the next attempt for central-government-led reusable launch vehicle (RLV) program will fail, but we are now 0-for-3, or 0-for-4 if you count the National Aerospace Initiative in 2002–04.

The reason that the Shuttle, NASP, X-33, and the NAI failed to achieve the goal of CATS is not because the people managing these programs were not smart—they were very smart. In many cases, they were chosen because they were among the smartest people we “knew” on the subject of space transportation. They “knew” a lot about space transportation. They were among the best and brightest people on this subject that we knew.

The fundamental reason for the repeated failure of these programs has to do with the limits of knowledge, and the blind spots that we all have.

The smart person’s disease: the unknown unknowns

It is not what you know that will get you. It is not even what you know that you don’t know. It is what you don’t know that you don’t know. These mental blindspots are created by the fundamental nature of information and knowledge.

We focus on what we know. We look at facts based on our previous experience. We create mental models based on what we know. The curse is that the smarter we are, and the more we know, the more likely we will become confident, and then arrogant, about what we know.

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.

Hindsight is 20/20, so it is easy for us to see that Samuel 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.

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 Smithsonian on May 30, 1899, asking for information.2

“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 dynamic control—which the esteemed Dr. Langley would fail to solve over a seventeen-year period?

It was not knowable.

It was May 30, 1899, when Wilbur Wright wrote the letter mentioned above, announcing his intention of beginning a systemic study of human flight. In less than two months, Wilbur Wright surpassed Langley and everybody else in the world in his fundamental understanding of aeronautics. Wilbur not only came up with the fundamentally new idea of roll control, but invented a mechanism for roll control and tested it in a small kite in downtown Dayton. John D. Anderson Jr., the curator for aerodynamics at the Smithsonian Institution and the Glenn L. Martin Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland, writes:3

“The Wrights’ most important and original contribution to the technology of flight occurred very early in their aeronautical development program—the appreciation of the need for lateral control and a mechanical mechanism for achieving it.

For a period of four years, the Wrights made rapid and continual advances, based on executing rapid-do-learn loops, as well as a commitment to basic research and hard data. It was their innovative methods combined with their genius that produced the breakthrough in flight. Their entrepreneurial approach is fundamentally similar to the American entrepreneurial culture today that is exemplified in Silicon Valley and many of the New Space firms. Unfortunately for American leadership in the early part of the 20th Century, this innovative entrepreneurial culture was also alive and well in a different country: France.

America learns the wrong lesson and becomes a follower

What was the lesson learned by America in 1908–09 after the Wright Brothers shocked the world with their demonstration of practical, sustained flight? American entrepreneurs had beaten the US government and the central program mindset. It was undisputed. After buying the first Wright airplane, which it was contractually obligated to do, how much funding did the US government allocate to buying additional airplanes to take advantage of this clear revolution in technology?


By 1909, French aviation entrepreneurs had caught up to the Wright Brothers, and within a few years all of Europe had blown past America’s best. Why did they become the world leaders in aviation?

After the Wrights provided convincing proof in 1908 that era of heavier-than-air aircraft was upon us, the US Government did not purchase a second plane until the Navy bought its first plane from Glenn Curtis in 1911. This slow pace was not for lack of trying by the US Army Signal Corps. General Allen, Chief Signal Officer of the US Army, requested $200,000 for aeronautics for fiscal year 1908, based on Orville Wright’s 1908 flight demonstration.4 According to Aviation Online magazine , General Allen “repeated this request for 1909 and again for 1910. Congress failed each time to approve any funding.”5 The US Army actually leased its second airplane, a Wright “Type B” from Robert Collier, in February 1911. The lease price was $1.00 per month.6 The nascent US Army air force had been reduced to the equivalent of begging for favors from private citizens. The first congressional appropriation for Army aviation was $125,000 in March 1911 for fiscal year 1912.7

In 1908, while Orville Wright was demonstrating their technology for the US Army, his brother Wilbur demonstrated their airplane technology in Paris. France, Britain, Russia, and Germany immediately recognized the implications and accelerated their nascent basic research and programs to buy planes from industry. Within one year, by 1909, French aviation entrepreneurs had caught up to the Wright Brothers, and within a few years all of Europe had blown past America’s best. French entrepreneurs invented many critical aviation technologies, including the fuselage, the wheeled landing gear, the aileron, the rotary engine, and the stick and rudder control system, that when added to the Wright Brothers’ innovations, would quickly capture world leadership.

John Morrow, author of The Great War in the Air, writes:8

A critical factor in the rise of military aviation from 1909 through 1911 was the rapid improvement of aircraft performance effected by the French, as they raised the speed record from 48 mph in 1909 to 83 mph in 1911. Distance also increased from 146 miles to 449 miles, and height increased from 1,468 feet to 12,828 feet.

By the beginning of World War I in 1914, France would become the undisputed world leader in aviation. If aerospace leadership is a worthy objective, and if public policy is worthy of serious study, then we must ask “What exactly was going on with French aviation in the first and second decades of the 20th Century? Why did they become the world leaders in aviation?”


1 Mahan, Alfred Thayer, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, Little Brown and Company, 1890, p. 50.

2 McFarland, editor, The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, Vol. 1, 4-5

3 Anderson, John D. Jr. Inventing Flight: The Wright Brothers and Their Predecessors, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2004, p. 98

4 War Department Annual Report, 1908, volume 2, page 214

5 Aviation Online,

6 William Sherman, “Air Warfare”, Air University,

7 National Park Service,

8 Morrow, John. The Great War in the Air: Military Aviation from 1909–1921, Smithsonian Institution, 1993.