Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

12-17 NM is Birthplace of Modern Rocketry

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- On December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilber Wright got their plane into the air long enough to constitute a recognized flight.
The feat was of such significance that the site is a national memorial, maintained by the National Park Service.
North Carolina's Outer Banks had been chosen instead of the fields outside Akron because of their steady high winds, a soft, flat landing area and the lack of prying eyes of competitors and the press.
Overall, it was a good choice, but its isolation meant great difficulties getting there. It also meant not having a place to fix or replace a broken part. All the backup had to be brought with them.
They also were far from their bicycle repair shop that was financing this madness about flying. But conditions were good and no one would consider making the trip out to spy on them. It was just too much of a hardship.
The young Wright Brothers were true American entrepreneurs. Neither had quite finished high school. They loved to tinker and figure out how to make things work. So they shunned school in order to devote their talents to starting businesses and making money.
Bicycles were the new craze at the time. They got those figured out and wanted to move on the flying machines. Some people already were experimenting in the United States and in Europe. The problem of lift had been solved and motors had been put on biplanes to provide speed.
But control was a mystery. Various theories developed. One was that with enough speed, stability would be the result. Many died trying to prove that one.
The Wright Brothers' secret was to watch birds fly. Their wingtips bent. So airplane wingtips should bend too. Thus a warped wing was designed. After numerous tries, it worked. First they used it with kites, then with gliders, taking a long run down Kill Devil Hill at Kitty Hawk.
Then power was added and they tried unmanned flights. Finally in mid-December, it was time for Wilbur to climb aboard, lying in the middle of the bottom wing. The first flight was 120 feet, lasting 12 seconds. By the fourth flight, the plane covered 852 feet in just under a minute. They had done it.
The first sustained and controlled, heavier-than-air powered flight. The aerodynamic principles used by the Wright Brothers still apply to all airplanes ever since.
The Wrights never accepted any funding from the government or private individuals. They were businessmen and wanted all the fruits of their research and development.
Continued testing was conducted in Dayton, but when the press could come around the planes developed flying problems. Once the Wrights felt they had a plane that was salable, they took it to some flying shows and then began advertising.
But they wouldn't demonstrate a plane to prospective buyers until they had a signed contract to purchase the plane. For two years, they made no sales, while other builders improved their products.
Finally, they signed contracts with the U.S. Army and with a French company. The demonstrations went beautifully and convinced all doubters that the Wrights truly knew what they were doing. Their dream of making it big had come true.
Both Dayton, Ohio and Kitty Hawk, N.C. have museums dedicated to the Wright Brothers and claim to be the birthplace of flight. We've been to both. They both have legitimate claims.
Our choice, however, is the Kittyhawk site. You can view the imposing Kill Devil Hill from which they conducted their glider tests and the logs stretch of sand (now covered by grass) over which they made their flights, with each of their four first flights marked.
The next great leap into the air was with rocketry. Most of that happened here in New Mexico, beginning with Dr. Robert Goddard, in 1930, at Roswell.
Goddard is known as the father of rocketry but our state hasn't gotten that word out. The Roswell Museum and Art Center has an outstanding display on Goddard and many other locations in New Mexico have rocketry in their history.
When Spaceport America opens, a major effort should be made to promote New Mexico as the birthplace of modern rocketry.

FRI, 12-17-10

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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