The historic achievement of Orville and Wilbur Wright, in making the first powered, heavier-than-air flight on Dec. 17, 1903, was the fruit of a private quest, as the brothers worked from their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, and the shores of Kill Devil Hill, N.C. Their dedication to hard work, plus a spirit of innovation, became the foundation of a century of progress in aviation and space flight.
Their success was unique to their time and circumstance, however. Today, could we expect they would fare the same, and from where will the next generation of aviation entrepreneurs emerge?
Will the second century of flight see more individuals like the Wrights? Or, has the era of the sole proprietor, working alone and unaided, been left behind in the 21st century?
"The Wrights were an exceptionally unique pair of brothers who undertook cutting edge research, building very well on what had already been accomplished without any government involvement whatsoever," Roger Launius, a historian of air and space flight at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, told United Press International.
Launius also is NASA's former chief historian. He conducted a recent review of aerospace research and development and found the type of achievement reached by the Wright brothers was the exception rather than the rule in aviation history.
In Launius's view, although the idea of the lone inventor -- or inventor brothers -- working without assistance and achieving breakthrough technologies is pervasive in American cultural mythology, the reality is very different.
"The kind of lone wolves that make up this folklore are rare indeed," Launius said. As aerospace technology became more complex in the 20th century, no one person alone could serve to master all of the increasingly complex skills required to develop advances.
"The vast majority of breakthroughs in aerospace technology have been the result not of the Wrights or other independent inventors, but of well-heeled R&D organizations, usually funded by government largesse," he explained.
His studies found that without sustained economic investment, the U.S. aerospace industry would quickly become a second-class power.
Many aviation advances in the second half of the 20th century were spurred by the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Government spending on defense and space soared. At the peak of the space program, in 1966, nearly 10 percent of federal discretionary spending went for the Apollo lunar landing program.
Government investments in pure R&D also resulted in the establishment of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics -- the NACA, precursor of NASA. New technological developments, from the swept wing to lowered drag coefficients, flowed from government-funded NACA laboratories.
As the Cold War ended, Launius found, so did the amount of spending on research. The aerospace industry, shrunk by consolidations and hit by cutbacks in programs, such as fighter aircraft and missiles, was unable and unwilling to make up the difference in declining federal research dollars. Innovations declined, and with them the market share of the U.S. aerospace industry. The process has forced changes. Although today's aviation fleet is three times as large as it was 20 years ago, U.S. aircraft manufacturers' share of the global market is shrinking. Yet the companies have not responded by boosting their R&D, but instead by extending existing designs and improving engines and production operations.
The decline in R&D funding also is a fact of life in the space program. U.S. space sales in the world marketplace have plunged since 1998. Existing commercial space rockets have been kept alive by federal spending, but these dollars also may be drying up.
The answer, Launius suggests, is for government to make research a priority again. He suggests doubling federal investment dollars and for national political and congressional leaders to highlight excellence, education and training. To refrain from this rededication, he said, would "be to turn our backs as we did in the 1900s on the legacy of the Wrights and their invention."
Industry simply cannot pick up that share of the burden, Launius said. He noted that economic challenges today form an equivalent of the Cold War threat of 40 years ago. The survival of the U.S. economic engine is threatened as much now by competition as it was by the Soviet menace.
Frank Sietzen covers the aerospace industry for UPI Science News. E-mail email@example.com
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