Any forward movement in aviation, or in space exploration, is usually greeted by cheers. As should be the case.
But often, first come the skeptics who ask whether it was worth it all. Or the doubters who say it never happened. Or even, sadly, those who shrug their shoulders and say, “So what?”
When the bicycle-makers Wilbur and Orville Wright successfully flew their single-engine, box-like airplane on a chilly December morning in 1903 from the mosquito-infested marshes of Kitty Hawk, N.C. — the first motorized heavier-than-air vehicle ever to leave the earth — only four local newspapers showed up to cover the event.
There were even disbelievers that the 12-second flight ever happened. The U.S. government turned the brothers down, with a form letter, saying it had no interest in their invention.
An editorial in a Paris newspaper sniffed, “The Wrights have flown or they have not flown. They possess a machine or they do not possess one. They are in fact either fliers or liars. It is difficult to fly . . . It is easy to say, ‘We have flown.’”
The press and the public ultimately came to recognize the significance of the Wrights’ first flight. But it took time.
So, too, now, there has been considerable scoffing at and bad-mouthing of the recent flights to the edge of space by the billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. Social media has been filled with denunciations: Bezos and Branson could have used the multi-millions they spent on their ventures feeding half the world’s population. They could have brought global warming under control. They could have cured Covid.
All these things are absolutely worthy goals and need to be done. But they will not be done by one man, or two. They will take global efforts by teams of scientists, researchers, scholars and all of us. Bezos and Branson had another goal in mind, one that is also worthy.
Their flights were a brief few minutes, and they reached about 60 miles high, the edge of space. But on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard, the first American in space, flew for only 15 minutes in his Freedom 7 space capsule, and reached an altitude of 101 miles before splashing down in the Atlantic.
But in what is really a wink of an eye — eight years and two months later — Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon, in July 1969.
The Apollo moon program certainly got the world cheering, but in the decades since, the view of its technological feats has soured. I have heard many deride it as little more than a propaganda tool, with a number of people looking back on it with a yawn.
But the view of our blue and white planet from space alone was worth every penny. We got a perception of just how enormous “out there” is, how tiny we really are, and how we need to preserve this beautiful planet of ours.
But technology from the Apollo program also gave us better water-purification systems, breathing masks used by firefighters around the world, solar panels, cordless devices like power tools, a path to developing miniaturized computers, advanced cameras, thermal blankets for keeping the sick warm and yes, moon rocks to gaze upon in museums.
It’s easy to call Bezos and Branson thrill-seekers who have little better to do with their time or money. Neither man is perfect. Bezos could certainly improve working conditions at his Amazon plants around the country, and he didn’t help himself when he “thanked” his employees for making his voyage possible. He used company stock to finance his trip, and his employees had no say in the matter.
But I also see the two men as dreamers, like the Wright brothers and all of the Apollo astronauts. Each step forward in aviation, or space, gets us a little closer to where our DNA as human beings pushes us to be: out there. The Wrights were the step to commercial airplanes. The airplanes took us to Apollo. Apollo took us to the moon. The moon is now seen as a landing stop on the way to Mars and beyond.
This progress cannot be stopped. Since our earliest days on Earth, we have looked skyward and asked, What’s up there?
Wilbur Wright put it this way: “The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who, in their grueling travels across trackless lands in prehistoric times, looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space, at full speed, above all obstacles, on the infinite highway of the air.”
Let’s keep looking.
James Bernstein is the editor of the Long Beach Herald. Comments about this column? JBernstein@liherald.com.