Faster, Higher, Farther
Since its earliest days, aviation has been all about pushing the envelope. The Wright brothers made four flights on December 17, 1903. The first, immortalized in the photo above, covered 120 feet in 13 seconds. The fourth stretched 852 feet and lasted nearly a minute, for a whopping average speed of nearly 10 mph. Orville and Wilbur didn’t just want to get in the air; they wanted to fly as far as possible.
Less than seven years later, in October 1910, adventurer Walter Wellman and crew set out from Atlantic City, N.J., in a dirigible, hoping to make the first transatlantic voyage by air (story in this issue). Wellman’s airship America floated along at a leisurely 20 mph, at a time when the world airspeed record stood at 66 mph. Although he didn’t make it across the Atlantic, Wellman established a record for sustained flight, just over 1,000 miles in three days.
Almost 31 years later to the day, German test pilot Heini Dittmar (unofficially) shattered the airspeed record by more than 150 mph when he took the Messerschmitt Me-163A V4 prototype to 624 mph. The rocket-powered, sweptwing interceptor, conceived by Alexander Lippisch (story in this issue), influenced postwar American X-plane designs that would culminate in North American Aviation’s incredible X-15.
As Richard Hallion writes in “Across the Hypersonic Divide," the X-15 “constituted a remarkable achievement and an astonishingly productive research program, bridging the age of flight and the age of space.” Flying X-15s, NASA research pilot Joe Walker reached a record altitude of 354,200 feet (67 miles), qualifying as an astronaut, and U.S. Air Force Major Pete Knight attained the mind-boggling speed of 4,520 mph (Mach 6.7), the fastest by a piloted airplane in the 20th century. Pause for a moment to consider that Knight’s achievement came less than 64 years after the Wright brothers first took wing.
Such progress, often driven by wartime exigencies, comes at a price. During times of conflict (in the Me-163’s case, World War II; in the X-15’s, the Cold War), nations are more apt to invest in new technologies that could potentially give them an edge. For Lippisch it meant he could pursue radical designs that at other times might have made him a laughingstock. In the case of the X-15 it allowed NASA to explore the boundaries of hypersonic flight, providing valuable data for the concurrent space program and future hypersonic aircraft.
Today, with the recent retirement of the space shuttles, NASA must rely on Russian rockets to put Americans into orbit. Until NASA develops its next-generation heavy launch vehicle, the best hope for American progress in space may well come from private enterprises such as Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems and Elon Musk’s SpaceX (story here). Somehow it seems fitting that early in the 21st century, entrepreneurs like Allen and Musk are driving aerospace advancements, just as the Wrights and Wellman helped pioneer aircraft technology early in the 20th century.