Newt Space

Does the history of two early pioneers of aviation offer an analogy for spaceflight?

First flight of Langley's aerodrome - one second after launch and one second before impact

During a recent talk to a gathering of students, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke of his longstanding interest in space by mentioning the dust-up over comments he made about a Moon colony during the GOP primary.  He expanded this episode into a teaching moment about the nature of innovation and progress in space.  Gingrich is vigorous in his enthusiasm for space exploration but is not a devotee of the current agency and its programs.  In his considered opinion, we need to re-think our approach to space exploration and use more innovative, non-bureaucratic approaches to develop space systems and capabilities.

A historian by training, Gingrich often uses historical analogies to illustrate his point.  On this occasion, he spoke of the experiences of the Wright Brothers and Samuel P. Langley in the development of the first airplane.  As Gingrich relates it, after several failed attempts the Wright brothers finally achieved flight on December 17, 1903, spending in total about $500.  In contrast, Langley (the recipient of a $50,000 government grant) failed in his attempt to fly when his “aerodrome” crashed into the waters of the Potomac River (the actual amounts spent were “less than $1000” and $70,000 respectively, according to James Tobin’s excellent book on the subject).  That powered aircraft might have military use was not a new idea and the then-recent war with Spain led to a re-examination of our defense posture, with the military eager to fund Langley’s aeronautical experiments.

Gingrich contrasts the “faster, cheaper, better” (and successful) approach of the Wrights to the supposedly bureaucratic, measured failure of Langley and suggests that this incident parallels the current differences between the approach of “New Space” (an umbrella term referring to the variety of current efforts by the private sector to develop spaceflight capability) and our federal civil space program.  In other words, it’s not the lack of resources or technology that’s holding us back – it’s our business model.  He suggests that many of the central tenants of “New Space” (including the offering of prizes as technical incentives and “lean” management models) will accomplish more in space than we’ve received through government programs and for much less expenditure.

The historical story is interesting but did Gingrich draw the correct conclusion?  Should the success of the Wright brothers be attributed to how they approached the problem or to how much it cost?  In contrast to Gingrich’s suggestion, Samuel Langley did not represent an enormous, bloated and hidebound bureaucracy.   At the turn of the century, the Smithsonian Institution was not the behemoth it is today.  Langley had been hired as an assistant secretary for international affairs at the Smithsonian.  Secretary Spencer Baird died eight months after Langley reported for work, leaving open that position, which Langley accepted.  He wanted to continue his aeronautical experiments and used the facilities of the Smithsonian (including its shops and technicians) to build and test his flying machines.

Langley built a high-powered internal combustion engine for his aircraft, producing greater horsepower per unit weight than any other effort of the time, including the one used by the Wright brothers.  The failure of Langley’s aerodrome largely resulted from its design; the dihedral cross-section of its wings led to instability in any type of wind.  Wilbur Wright described this problem in a June 1903 talk – an understanding that came from the brothers’ experiments with wing shapes on kites at Kitty Hawk.  The Wright flyer used wing-warping to create control surfaces, which made it possible for a pilot to steer the airplane in variable wind conditions.  The Langley aerodrome was naturally unstable; with its wing shape, any gust or cross-wind rendered the aircraft uncontrollable.  In other words, the success of the Wright brothers was due to a superior technical approach, not to their management model.

For anyone who has dealt with bureaucracy, freedom from the ponderous administrative overhead of a government agency is always an enticing vision.  But in many ways, it is orthogonal to the real issue – what are you trying to accomplish and by what means or mechanism?  The Wrights and Langley both knew what they were trying to do, but only one of them had the correct technical approach.  Their technical choices determined the outcome of their efforts, not the total amount of money spent nor the managerial structure of their respective projects.  If so, can we draw any conclusions from this and apply it to the current model of our national civil space program?  The idea that government cannot do anything right is understandably attractive and in vogue, but not completely borne out by the evidence.

As a counter-example to Gingrich’s history of early aviation, consider a technical development project closer to us in time and memory.  A nuclear ship that has to refuel only every few years has an enormous advantage over one that needs near-constant refueling.  The United States possesses a nuclear navy (both aircraft carriers and submarines) largely because of the vision and persistence of one man, Admiral Hyman Rickover.  A true visionary, Rickover believed that nuclear reactors could be made small enough to fit into a ship and safe enough to entrust the lives of thousands of men to such vessels.  For years he fought the navy and the Defense Department to sell the advantages of nuclear sea power to the Congress and President.  Today we have such a fleet largely because of his vision and determined efforts.  And nobody ever took a poll to see if a nuclear navy would “excite and engage” the public.

Newt Gingrich is a true believer of humanity’s future in space.  I admire his dedication and courage in speaking the truth as he sees it.  However, in this case, I believe he has drawn the wrong lesson from history.  Compelling national interests sometimes require the marshalling of our combined will and resources.  We need a dedicated federal space program with a clear strategic direction and the know-how to pull off difficult technical tasks.  No cult of management or prize money will have us walking again on the Moon or using its resources.

For our country to remain vibrant and strong, it is vital that Americans be called upon to engage in the mental and physical challenges of a national space program, coupled to the realities and challenges inherent in an expanding cislunar territory and new markets.  Our pioneering space legacy needs to be embraced and celebrated through a renewed commitment from our government.  If Americans forfeit this direction and opportunity because their government cannot see the danger in the current path, we will have grievously failed in our promise as a nation and our obligation and duty to future generations.


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