BOSTON -- It has a 96-foot wingspan -- wider than the wings of a DC-9 jet -- it it weighs just 70 pounds and it flies on the same power that runs a bicycle: human muscles.
Dr. Paul MacCready looks up at the clear Mylar plastic stretched over the wings of the airplane, the Gossamer Albatross. But he is not talking about flight. He is talking about going to the grocery store in a pedal-power car.
'Pedal power is very convenient,' MacCready said. 'It's always there and it makes you feel good and healthy.'
The Albatross, fragile-looking as it hangs in the west wing of Boston's Museum of Science, was designed by MacCready, 55, for the Kremer Competition, which offered $200,000 for the first controlled human-powered flight.
MacCready, an aeronautical engineer working out of Pasadena, Calif., freely admits he undertook designing the aircraft for the prize money. But his eventual success made him realize the nation's energy situation has created the need for people to take the problem of tranportation on the ground as well as the air into their own hands -- and literally their own feet.
'Suddenly Henry Kremer in England put up a challenge to fly an airplane on the puny power a person had,' he said. 'Much to my surprise we found we can meet the challenge.'
On June 12, 1979, Bryan Allen, 26, pedaled the Albatross at about 11 mph over the English Channel in two hours and 49 minutes and changed MacCready's thinking about moving people from place to place.
'Some motivation was the prize money,' MacCready said. 'But when the project went on ... it was so much more than the money. It became great fun pioneering a development.'
Now MacCready has joined the International Human Powered Vehicle Association, based in California and is helping pioneer other vehicles run on novel forms of power, including the solar-powered Gossamer Penguin flown recently in Arizona.
His Gossamer Albatross is of little value in itself because it is so delicate. The thin Mylar is stretched tightly over ribs made of polystyrene, the same material used for throw-away coffee cups. A web of piano wires extend from the cockpit to various points on the wings.
But MacCready said streamlined automobiles could be built of low-weight materials and run on small electric or gasoline motors -- or on pedal power.
Pedal cars developed to date include a two-person vehicle that was clocked at 63 mph with both people pedaling. A one-person car reached 58 mph.
MacCready said it would be possible to design a vehicle for people to pedal themselves about at 30 mph 'without even working up a sweat.'
'It's not going to be the panacea transportation device, but it can be very cheap and effective for commuting,' he said.
Despite the use of lightweight materials, the cars would be safe off the major highways and in the city.
'You won't get hurt,' he said. 'Safety is not going to be the same as in a truck or a tank, but it's quite acceptable.'