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The flights of SpaceShipOne have created a “Kitty Hawk moment” that leaves some still pondering its significance. (credit: GE)

That Kitty Hawk moment

In Bob Newhart’s classic comedy routine, “Merchandising the Wright Brothers,” he has an imaginary phone conversation with Orville and Wilbur just after their historic flight at Kitty Hawk. As a marketing guy, Bob is concerned about the length of the flight. He’s worried that people who pay for a trip to the coast won’t be happy at having to land every hundred feet. And what about getting a john on board?

This illustrates the phenomenon I call the “Kitty Hawk Moment”. It is that instant when the impossible becomes a reality. Is it any wonder that people find it hard to take in? The initial reaction may be “So what?” Until that last question is answered there is little progress. It took from December 17, 1903 until May 20, 1927, before Charles Lindbergh came up with the definitive response. In the interim, Bob Newhart’s approach represents the prevailing mood. Prior to that first flight, an editorial in a leading newspaper had suggested that mathematicians and mechanics might take at least a million years to figure out how to do it. The Wright Brothers took just three years.

Today, we have another Kitty Hawk moment: the suborbital flight of Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, heralding the birth of the private enterprise space industry. This was also roughly a three-year project from drawing board to safe landing. And this moment is attracting the skeptics, too.

The “Kitty Hawk Moment” is that instant when the impossible becomes a reality. Is it any wonder that people find it hard to take in?

The media reported the achievement but have yet to fully grasp the significance of what happened. There is a tendency to treat events as though they were just about boys with their toys. Rutan’s stunning success was funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Other programs under development are also being funded by wealthy space dreamers such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. In an article last summer in the New York Times they were collectively referred to as the “Thrillionaires.” They’ve got the mansion, the yacht, and the exotic cars, so what’s next? Hey, how about a spaceship?

In Britain, the BBC aired a serious program that covered the emerging commercial launch industry with a focus on space tourism. But in the weekend magazine of a major national newspaper, the TV reviewer referred to the project backers as “geeks and charlatans” and wondered if they had all been watching “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines?” Even Richard Branson wasn’t immune to a sideswipe: his involvement with SpaceShipOne was deemed sufficient proof that the whole thing was a joke.

Apart from the media, there are the space insiders voicing their concerns. The first type seems a little put out by the focus on tourism. It would, of course, be wonderful if the Hubble could be replaced by the Jeff Bezos Telescope and the Kuiper Belt could be explored by Elon Musk in person. But the critics overlook the fact that tourism will generate the buzz that puts space back in the forefront of people’s minds as well as earning some hard cash to fund future developments that will take us from suborbital to orbital trips. Space is for everyone and black sky flights are a pretty good place to start getting people involved and wanting more.

The second type of insider wants to ask some tough questions of the pioneers. Is the architecture viable? How safe, reliable, and reusable will this rocket be? Are you long on PowerPoint presentations and short on hardware? When you have something tangible, how will you test it? Where? With whom? Under what circumstances? How often? But do we really care if someone comes up with a rocket that burns bourbon and banana peels, so long as it is thoroughly tested and proves to be safe and reliable? Should we try to hold the innovators to standards they can’t reach yet? When a baby learns to walk it has to fall down a lot and bump into the furniture. We accept that as the problem-solving process necessary to climb the learning curve. The space entrepreneurs will also have some hard landings as they learn how to soar. It comes with the territory.

Every major technological advance has attracted naysayers. Take the steam locomotive. Back around 1830, when Stephenson’s Rocket was the next big thing, there was a strong body of scientific opinion that human beings would explode at speeds above 50 kilometers per hour—assuming that people didn’t suffocate first as the air would be sucked out of their lungs! And what was the point of all this haste, anyway? The German Kaiser remarked, “Why would a man pay good money to travel from Berlin to Potsdam in an hour when he can get there within a day for nothing on his own horse?” The same thinking greeted the computer, the transistor, and the laser. All were seen as solutions looking for a problem. A leading consulting firm once concluded that the world market for photocopiers was no more than two or three thousand units. It’s usually hard to see the business case when a groundbreaking innovation first appears, as IBM and Kodak discovered when they turned down the invention and then watched Xerox take off.

But do we really care if someone comes up with a rocket that burns bourbon and banana peels, so long as it is thoroughly tested and proves to be safe and reliable?

To understand all these reactions we need to return to Kitty Hawk. Try to imagine you were there on that lonely, wind-swept beach in 1903. You have just seen history being made. But could you, in that moment, foresee the future? Would you see how the airplane would develop from the Wright Flyer to the jumbo jet or from lumbering biplanes to the SR-71? Could you possibly dream that every city throughout the world would have an airport and every day thousands of airliners would fly between them carrying millions of passengers? Even if you had that vision then what came later might have put you off. In 1911, Cal Rogers flew a Wright Flyer from Long Island to Long Beach attempting to win the $50,000 Hearst Prize. The condition was that the trip must be completed within 30 days. Rogers took 84 days, 16 stops, and 19 crashes. More material for Bob Newhart! However, Rogers never gave up and neither did all the other pioneers who developed ever-more successful airplanes. That tradition is alive and well today as typified by Burt Rutan and the others who are forging ahead.

We ought to be smarter now. We have the benefit of history and the lessons it teaches us. Whether it’s the Wright Brothers, Robert Goddard, or Wernher von Braun, their tentative first steps, their Bob Newhart moments, laid the foundations on which great achievements were built. Every plane, rocket, and spaceship lifts off with a cargo of dreams. We may not know precisely how long it will take for those dreams to be fully realized, but let’s cut the pioneers some slack. They have some significant problems to solve but, conceptually, are they any more difficult than throwing a railroad over the Sierras or diving to the deep ocean trenches? As Einstein noted, the only problem a human mind could never solve was how to figure out income tax.

This brings me to the last point. The private enterprise space race is being carried forward by people with the dream of opening space to everyone. This is in keeping with the American tradition of innovation serving the nation’s dedication to democracy. It also supports that unique American characteristic: the belief that any problem can be solved using ingenuity and a can-do attitude. When pilot Brian Binnie landed after SpaceShipOne’s historic flight he commented, “Thank God I live in country where this kind of thing is possible.” How right he was: of 25 teams entering the Ansari X-Prize contest, 17 were American.

So don’t be blindsided by the Kitty Hawk moment—that’s when great things take off.