A Final Touchdown

america flag astronaut nasa

Photo: NASA

Americans have dominated the heavens from the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight to the space shuttle Atlantis’ final touchdown this morning. Is this the end of our nation’s aeronautics leadership – and should we care?Let’s not over-dramatize. NASA is not going out of business. In military applications, our hardware and crew capabilities run circles around everyone else, as the Pakistanis can attest after the stealth raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Boeing remains one of the global leaders in commercial aviation, though it is challenged at the middle and upper segments of the market by Airbus and at the lower end by Brazil’s Embraer, among others.

We even lead in Hollywood’s version of the skies. When an asteroid threatens to destroy Earth on the big screen, who ya gonna call – China? No way. Not yet, at least.

But that could change. China’s space program is ambitious, apparently well-funded, and mostly secret. While U.S. scientists share the International Space Station with collaborators from other nations, the Chinese plan to launch the first module for a future station of their own later this year. They intend to move into their new home in space in 2020, which is the year the ISS is scheduled to close. Unless plans for a replacement move ahead quickly, China may be the only country with a permanent manned presence in space a decade from now.

China is also on the move in commercial aviation. The nation’s leadership decided to get into the business in a serious way less than a decade ago. The first step was the development of the Comac (for Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China) ARJ21, a 70- to 100-passenger regional jet. Six prototypes have been built for testing, and commercial flights may begin late this year. Most of the 239 initial orders have been by Chinese and nearby Asian airlines, but a unit of General Electric has signed up for five of the planes with an option for 20 more. (Not coincidentally, GE engines power the ARJ21.)

China also has its sights set on larger aircraft. Ireland-based Ryanair signed an agreement last month to help Comac develop and launch its C919 narrow-body jet, which boasts a capacity of up to 200 passengers, by 2018. This was unwelcome news for Boeing. Ryanair currently flies 272 of Boeing’s 737 jets, configured to carry 189 passengers each.

The decline, real or potential, of American leadership is not a story about China, however; it is a story about us. For roughly the first two-thirds of the 20th century, we made all sorts of efforts to fly faster, farther, longer and higher than anyone else dared. This was never truer than after the Sputnik scare in 1957; we feared Soviet leadership in space and missile technology, and we certainly did not want to give up aviation bragging rights to the Communists. So we set ourselves on a mission to get to the moon.

But by the time we did it, we started asking ourselves why we did it. It was expensive. Its practical and financial value was unclear. Then as now (and always), there were conflicting priorities and demands for government money.

The space shuttle program just barely made it into the window before we essentially closed up shop on new government-built manned space vehicles. President Richard Nixon authorised the shuttle program in 1971. A decade later, Columbia made the first shuttle flight. Today, essentially the same craft that was designed in the early 1970s finished its final mission, still the largest and most capable human-carrying vehicle in the skies. The shuttle never lived up to its hype as a cheap, reusable craft that would be safe enough for civilians and cost-effective enough to launch every week, but when it first flew, it was decades ahead of anything else.

I have watched about a half-dozen shuttles soar into the sky, mostly from a beach near our Florida home, 80 miles away. Even at that distance it is spectacular, especially at night. I was disappointed when clouds obscured our view of the final launch earlier this month.

I will still get to see rockets blast off from the Kennedy Space centre. The current Delta, Atlas/Centaur and Titan rockets, however, are considerably smaller than the shuttle – which was considerably smaller than the Saturn V rockets that carried the Apollo missions to the moon. In heavy lift capabilities, we have made no progress in nearly a half-century.

We rested on our laurels in civil aviation, too. Boeing’s flagship 747 first flew commercially in 1970. It was the largest passenger plane in the skies for 37 years, before the Airbus A380 eclipsed it. Bigger is not always better, and Boeing did make many improvements under the skin over the years to keep the 747 competitive, yet the fact remains that when you want to move the most people or freight over large distances, the best answer no longer is an American product.

Boeing’s 737, 757 and 767 are also dated designs, and the 757 was discontinued in 2004. I prefer to fly in the more modern and comfortable Airbus A320s and A330s. Boeing’s wide-body 777 is a worthy competitor to the Airbus A340, of similar 1990s vintage. We’re all still waiting for our first flight in Boeing’s oft-delayed new entrant in the big-jet category, the 787 “Dreamliner.” The company hopes to put the first one in commercial service later this year.

So we’re still in the game, even if we’re not winning in a rout. Which gets us back to the question of whether it matters. How important is it that the most capable, most efficient, most reliable flying machines be designed and built in this country?

Important enough, I would say, not to give up our leadership position without a good reason and without a fight. Even after a century of flight, aviation still has room to get better: safer, faster, cheaper, quieter, more comfortable, or more fuel-efficient. The advances we made in aviation have often filtered into other areas of our lives, and the material benefits of building and deploying better aircraft contribute to our high standard of living.

We invented powered flight. We had the leading role in advancing it to where it is today. The shuttle’s missions are over, but I think flying – in the atmosphere or beyond it – can still take us places.

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