‘Dream a Lot’
Aerospace designers are by definition dreamers—flights of fancy are part of the job description. It’s for this reason that aviation history seems to have more than its share of dreamers, and no shortage of crackpots.
Many would put early airplane designer Alfred W. Lawson in the latter category. Branded by one writer “the Leonardo da Vinci of kooks,” Lawson was not a design engineer in the traditional sense, having quit school in the sixth grade when he saw no reason to continue his formal education. After a nearly 20-year career as a baseball pitcher, manager and promoter, in 1908 he launched Fly magazine and in 1910 followed up with Aircraft magazine—despite having no aviation or publishing experience. Both short-lived publications were devoted to promoting the idea of big passenger-carrying airplanes, or airliners, a term Lawson is credited with inventing. In 1919 the energetic inventor put his ideas into practice with the Lawson Air Line Transportation Company, producing the six-ton C-2 airliner and the even bigger L-4 trimotor transport. When his airline company failed, Lawson went on to found the University of Lawsonomy in Des Moines, Iowa, dedicated to teaching the principles of a bizarre worldview of his own invention. (For more on him, see C.V. Glines’ “Alfred Lawson: Visionary or Crackpot?” in the July 2006 Aviation History).
Among history’s greatest airplane designers, Douglas Aircraft chief engineer Ed Heinemann never completed a formal engineering degree either, relying instead on knowledge gleaned through years of experience under the tutelage of such aeronautical geniuses as Donald Douglas and Jack Northrop. Heinemann’s design philosophy—distilled to a simple phrase posted on his office wall, “Simplicate and Add Lightness”—produced the A-4 Skyhawk naval attack jet, which still earns the admiration of aircraft designers. “When beginning a project, sketch out all your ideas and concepts,” he urged his staff. “Dream a lot. Let your mind freewheel.”
These days much of the dreaming in the aerospace industry is being done by entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Branson’s Virgin Galactic company, founded with the help of groundbreaking aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, is at last nearing its first suborbital test flight, with passenger flights for well-heeled customers slated to start in 2015. NASA recently awarded Musk’s SpaceX company a $2.6 billion contract to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) aboard its Dragon capsule. The award, announced in conjunction with a $4.2 billion contract to Boeing for its CST-100 capsule, represents a paradigm shift for America’s space program, in which NASA will pay private contractors to send astronauts to space—something it has been unable to do since the retirement of the space shuttle. (NASA is currently paying Russia $71 million per astronaut for trips to the ISS.) Some of those astronauts will ride rockets powered by the BE-4 engine under development by Bezos’ Blue Origin company, the Amazon founder announced at a September 17 press conference. His partnership with United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, will end the unseemly spectacle of American rockets being powered by Russian-made engines, and address the Russian deputy prime minister’s suggestion that the U.S. might have to “deliver its astronauts to the ISS with a trampoline.”
In a statement following the SpaceX award, Musk said it “is a vital step in a journey that will ultimately take us to the stars and make humanity a multi-planet species.” With dreamers like these, who put their money where their mouth is, you get the feeling that’s not so far-fetched.