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On January 26, 2012, former House Speaker and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich gave a campaign speech in Florida outlining his vision of the future of American human spacefaring program. The transcript of the speech is available on the National Space Society blog here. The C-SPAN video of the speech is here.
The significance of Mr. Gingrich’s speech is that it is one of the few (only?) in recent years by a national political leader to address the issue of what should be America’s goals with respect to our spacefaring future. In my previous blog entry, I focused on the lack of leadership, or more correctly, the lack of spacefaring leaders in America. If you go by the belief that a leader speaks when an issue of public importance should be addressed, then I believe Mr. Gingrich did just that with his recent speech.
As a historian, Mr. Gingrich understands the importance of pointing out similar historical events to bring forth a pertinent point when discussing a topic of current interest. After all, this is why we take note of historical events and try to draw parallels to current circumstances. The situation that America finds itself in with respect to its future in space today, or more specifically, astronautics, is very similar to that which it had found itself in with respect to its future in aeronautics at the end of the 1930s.
We tend to think of aeronautics as being a 20th century invention, when, in fact, the history of aeronautics in America goes all the way back to the time of George Washington. In 1793 in Philadelphia, George Washington observed the first free ascent by a balloonist, or aeronaut as they were called. This was done by the French aeronaut Blanchard and was undertaken eight years after the first successful balloon crossing of the English Channel. It was Blanchard’s 45th ascension.
American aeronautics started with Charles Durant in 1830. In 1859, departing from St. Louis, four men set a long distance record of 809 miles in an aborted attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean. This record stood until 1910. Tethered balloons were used in the Civil War for spotting enemy forces. By the late 1800s, balloon flight was quite common. In 1881, aeronaut Samuel King, who made 480 ascensions during his career, made another attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Thus, by the late 1800s, flying was not uncommon in the United States. The difficulty, of course, was a lack of control and this made balloon flight a sport and not an industry.
The transformation that was needed in aeronautics was to add the ability to fly where you wanted with control. There are two approaches to this. The first was through the addition of engines to balloons turning them into lighter-than-air ships. Internal combustion engines became available in the late 1890s. Airships, with rigid hulls necessary to restrain the balloon and mount the passenger compartment and engines, first flew in the 1890s. This approach grew into the large dirigibles common in the 1920s and 1930s, such as the Hindenburg. Despite multiple attempts, this approach to commercial aeronautics did not prove successful as crashes and deaths, often by fire, cast doubt on this being a viable means of transportation. The age of dirigibles ended in failure in the 1930s due to the inability to make the approach safe with the then available technological capabilities.
The highly-successful alternative, of course, was the heavier-than-air flying machine first successfully engineered and flown, in 1903, by the Wright Brothers. By the end of the decade, the Wright Brothers had demonstrated man’s ability for controlled flight to millions of people in the United States and Europe.
Aeronautics in Europe and United States went down two different paths. In United States, the Wright Brothers focused on obtaining patent rights and, by that means, controlling the production of aeroplanes by their competitors. Tied up in endless legal battles, the only thing this accomplished was keeping American businesses from exploiting the Wright Brothers’ lead in aeronautics. Significant guidance or action from the Federal Government did not materialize. The coming importance of aeronautics was not widely appreciated.
In Europe, enthusiasm for flight really took hold once the Wright Brothers demonstrated what could, in fact, be done. They literally wowed crowds in the hundreds of thousands and became the “rock stars” of Europe. Within a decade of the Wright Brothers first flight, leadership in aeronautics had shifted to Europe where it would stay for the next 30 years. For example, all primary fighter aircraft in World War I were of European design, even those used by U.S. fliers. In the 1920s and 1930s in the United States, the focus was on prizes and records. In Europe, the focus was on achieving operational capabilities, particularly military operational capabilities in Germany, Italy, Russia, France, and England.
America learned the hard way in the late 1930s and early 1940s, as it was drawn into World War II after Pearl Harbor, that being technologically and operationally deficient carried significant national security consequences. With Japan already conducting extensive military operations in the Pacific and Germany invading its neighbors in Europe, President Roosevelt was finally able to convince Congress in 1938 of the need to get serious about developing America’s aeronautical industry. Significant federal funds were appropriated to ramp up the design and production of new military aircraft. However, when America entered the war at the end of 1941 nearly four years later, it was still substantially behind its enemies in terms of the capabilities of its deployed fighters and bombers. It did not achieve operational parity in Europe until 1943, after nearly six years of full industrial mobilization. When you are fighting a war, it’s your deployed capabilities that count, not what’s on the designer’s drafting board, in flight test, or in wishful musings of future force structure plans.
Operational parity was achieved in 1943-44 primarily because German production facilities were being bombed and war material prioritization and critical shortages slowed the introduction of three important new generations of weapons from entering the war in time to make a difference. The first was jet-powered aircraft and the other two were ballistic and cruise missiles.
Jet engines were invented near simultaneously in Germany and England prior to the start of the war. Germany was the first to field these systems in the final year of the war after about six years of development. When finally used in even modest numbers, they achieved a kill ratio advantage over the primary American fighter, the P-51 Mustang. Most the German jets that were destroyed by Allied air forces were on the ground or were landing and takeoff. Once at altitude, they were nearly invincible. Had sufficient priority been assigned leading to their introduction a year earlier as the Allied bombing campaigns intensified in 1943-44, their impact would have likely been considerable. The American 8th Air Force was already, on average, losing 10% of its bombers each mission.
The other areas where America lagged were ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. Germany deployed the famous V-1 cruise missile and the V-2 ballistic missile during the final year of the war. Both of these were a surprise to the Allies. Nearly 9000 V-1 cruise missiles and 3000 V-2 ballistic missiles, armed with one ton warheads, were launched primarily at London and the Allies’ port of embarkation at Antwerp. Over 1 million homes and buildings were destroyed in England—equaling the destruction of the Blitz.
The lack of a useful guidance capability limited the utility of these weapons once the Allied invasion had begun. This is because the initial missile attacks began a week after the landing at Normandy. Had they started earlier, even by a couple of weeks, the concentration of several hundred thousand Allied forces and thousands of ships at the ports of debarkation in England could have been especially vulnerable.
Why this rehash of pre-World War II history of aeronautics when talking about Newt Gingrich’s speech on space? Obviously, because of the similarities of the U.S. leadership thinking then compared to today.
America had the lead in aeronautics in 1903, but neither the Federal Government nor large existing American industry appreciated what this revolutionary breakthrough would bring in the coming decades. Ineffective leaders in America let leadership in advancing aeronautical technologies shift to Europe by the start of World War I. It took a second world war, at tremendous cost in terms of American treasure and lives, for America to regain this leadership—and only then as a spoil of war in the form of captured technical data and German designers, engineers, and scientists.
Fortunately, the revolutionary impact of jet-powered aeronautics and rocket-based astronautics was not lost of the American military leadership. Even prior to the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944, key post-war planning efforts were already looking to ramp up American investment in a broad range of advanced technologies including jet and rocket propulsion, television-guided cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and, even, nuclear-powered rockets. Plans were also made to exploit captured German resources in critical areas. This led to the tremendous surge in American aeronautics and astronautics in the following two decades as America’s new “aerospace” industry bounded forward.
In both aeronautics and astronautics, America has returned to the early 1900 mentality of “what’s the big deal?” if other countries take the lead. The key lessons of the mid-20th century regarding the serious consequences of technological leadership failure have been forgotten by most national political leaders and, apparently, by many risk-adverse national business leaders as well. The drive to maintain world technological leadership in actual practice, as opposed to political rhetoric, has fallen by the wayside.
This failure is, perhaps, most acute in the area of America’s human spacefaring enterprise. For the first time in American history, that I can think of, a vital national infrastructure capability—the ability to transport Americans to Earth orbit—has been ended without a better replacement coming into operation. Today, leadership in human spacefaring operations is, by default, shifting to China—a key, but subtle, point of Mr. Gingrich’s speech.
My impression is that many of those offering criticism of Mr. Gingrich’s speech fail to understand that to be a world-leading nation this century, America must lead in space. Simply pointing to the history books and saying, “Oh, it’s OK if China goes to the Moon; we were there back in 1969”, completely misses the point of what is expected of or needed to be done by a world-leading nation. Of what value is a historical accomplishment when the nation no longer possesses the ability to do it again? If you think this is a mute point to argue, then step outside and look up. America’s space “coast” is but 100 miles above your head. Do you appreciate the significance of this? In the 1930’s, the British military stood at the cliffs of Dover looking across the English Channel, that had protected their island nation for centuries, and saw this natural defense disappearing as German air forces honed their skills as they volunteered their services in the Spanish Civil War. The British military leadership understood what was coming their way.
A proper role of national political leaders is to establish the outer bounds of what the nation should strive to achieve. President Kennedy did that when he set the original objectives for America’s human lunar landing program. While Mr. Gingrich’s speech was certainly not as polished as those of President Kennedy, that will come as American spacefaring leaders provide guidance on what America’s aerospace industry is actually capable of achieving in the next decade and what are the appropriate approaches to use that over, the bureaucratic bottlenecks of anti-progress that Mr. Gingrich mentioned.
It will not be too many years in the future before America’s economic competitors will be plying the seas off America’s space coast above your head. That America would not be among those human spacefaring nations is unacceptable and I think that concern is at the heart of the message that Mr. Gingrich was trying to communicate. While there are details in Mr. Gingrich’s remarks with which I disagree, I applaud his willingness to bring this important issue into the 2012 presidential campaign.
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AIAA Associate Fellow