It is first light now, a chilly morning here in Florida, but I have been awake for several hours reading about the mercury astronauts. They were great Americans, and we still generate that kind of person here, and you as a person who has chosen to build and fly your own aircraft are among the breed. The element that has changed in 50 years is the setting, the national understanding of what is worthy of or collective admiration. To illustrate this, read the paragraph below from a 1959 Life magazine introducing the Mercury Seven. The last sentence speaks of why we found these men and their decision to be worthy of our national respect:
“Some fine early morning before another summer has come, one man chosen from the calmly intent seven . . . will embark on the greatest adventure man has ever dared to take. Dressed in an all-covering suit to protect him from explosive changes in pressure, strapped into a form-fitting couch to cushion him against the crushing forces of acceleration, surrounded in his tiny chamber by all manner of instruments designed to bring him safely home, he will catapult upward at the head of a rocket for more than 100 miles and then plunge down into the Atlantic Ocean. If he survives, he will be come the heroic symbol of a historic triumph; he will be the first American, perhaps the first man, to be rocketed into the dark stillness of space. If he does not survive, one of his six remaining comrades will go next.”
If you went to a high school today, what percentage of students could be made to understand the phrase “A dedication to duty that meant more than life itself”. Can you think of any person, celebrity, politician, sports figure, that is on the national awareness, that would meet such a measure of character? In 2016, I saw a lot of people with hats and bumper stickers that said “Make America Great Again”. Because I believe it is bigotry to think you know everything about an individual because you perceive him to be in a group that fits some label, I don’t assume I know that persons vision of the slogan. Nobody asked, but my personal image of making America great again would start with returning to our national admiration and attention being focused on Americans who are worthy of it.
Even if this does not come to pass, I still can hold these values in my own life, and choose to spend my hours in the company of those who do. It was been one of the great rewards of my working life, that aviators, and particularly homebuilders, understand and respect the values of courage and dedication, at a rate many times higher than the general public. People who build and fly their own plane, and who are truly the master of it, not merely it’s owner, are living examples of the values that defined the better part of this country 50 years ago. -ww.
. “If we die we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.” – Gus Grissom.
I have very strong objections to our National air and Space Museum being called the “Udvar-Hazy Center”. Steven Udvar-Hazy’s only contribution to aviation is manipulating the leasing of commercial aircraft to make himself a billionaire. His $66 million contribution to the museum sounds big until you realize that it was only 1.5% of his estimated net worth.
No National landmark in this country should be named for people who donated money. It is as demeaning as naming the Lincoln Memorial the ‘Walmart memorial’. It is un-American to measure the value of a man by the thickness of his wallet. It is for precisely this reason that Americans triumphed in flight. Our system recognized and advanced the best, brightest and courageous. It placed no value on class, connection or wealth.
If the Air and Space museum is to be named for the highest bidder, I can think of 100 names off the top of my head like, Sijan, Grissom, Loring, Scobee, Luke, Husband….American Aviators who gave 100% of everything they had or would ever have for this country, paying a price that makes any financial contribution meaningless.
Why Bother? (2011)
I stood in my front yard two days ago to watch the last Launch of the Space Shuttle. It was very moving to think about the 30 years of the program, years that have spanned my adult life. “Land of the free and home of the brave” are the end of our National Anthem, but who personifies this? For my choice, I think of Astronauts. I have friends who work in the space program, and they all acknowledge that despite the risks, there is no shortage of very qualified people to go. I can remember the exact spot where I was in Florida the day The Challenger was lost. I have been to their monument on the hillside above the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. Before their flight, they were briefed that their odds of perishing were between 1/300 and 1/20. They went anyway, not because they were gamblers, but because they know that some things were worth doing even if they brought a very high risk of death. From the Challenger monument, it is a short walk to JFK’s grave. In 1962 he answered the question of “Why bother?” on the subject of Space flight:
“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
When JFK said these words, he only had about 400 days left to live. Almost all of the people reading this have far more time left here. Question is, what will you do with it? Will you succumb to a “Why Bother?” mentality that seeks out false paths because they appear to require less learning and thinking? If the goal of a seafaring captain was to preserve the ship, he would never leave port. If someone’s goal is to save money and learn as little as possible, I humbly suggest that experimental aviation will prove to be a very frustrating and potentially very dangerous path. If “Why Bother” is such a person’s personal credo, they are never going to get any of the rewards while simultaneously taking astounding unnecessary risks. “Why bother” is much better matched to watching TV than building and flying planes.
I am 48 now, and I am past the halfway point. The exact length of the trip and the destination are unknown, but the road of memories behind get inexorably longer. Is it time to slow down, and ask “Why Bother?” Of course not. Anyone reading this has been lucky enough to be born one of the .1% of the people on this planet who has any hope of building something with their own hands and flying it, a dream so bold that it was beyond the reach of any person who every lived on this planet a mere 110 years ago. I am smarter than I was last year; I have learned more, I have honed my skills in the workshop and in the air. Aviation offers a near limitless arena in which to expand your life, to willfully choose the difficult and rewarding over the easy and complacent. This increase of capability and control that is the reward for honest striving and effort is the only substitute I have found for the nostalgia for a fading youth. I will never run a 5:30 mile again, never do 50 consecutive chin ups again, nor a number of other physical milestones from age 24. But I am a much better craftsman, pilot and person than I was then. Experimental aviation is the setting where I will find out how much I can study, understand and master in my life, not how little. For anyone else who feels the same way, I look forward to reading anything you have to say, seeing anything you have built, and being there when you arrive in your plane to a welcome of people who understand what is worth aggressively pursuing in life. -ww.
2 Replies to “Thought for the Day: The Face of Courage.”
I am, schlepping to Long Island to pick up my finished ? Corvair. 2017 isn’t 2010 when I figured i would be flying but what the hell.
What has always bothered me about the two shuttle loses was that if doing it right triumphed over political expediency and staying on budget those brave space travelers could still be alive today.
It was well documented that cold weather was resulting in blowby of SRM seals but the manufacturer was unwilling to go with the side of caution and have the launch held for a warmer day. That investigation would have been a white wash if not for the efforts of one engineer who would not compromise on the truth. Of course NASA tried to put a good face on the deaths and say it was instantaneous but the evidence showed that several of the crews emergency oxygen systems had been activated indicating they were desperately trying to deal with a confusing situation that was far beyond hope at that point. But the problem was “Fixed” and more brave astronauts volunteered to ride the shuttle into space again.
It was also well know that pieces of external tank foam were shedding and striking the shuttle but thankfully in non-critical areas. A fix would be expensive so not done. Tornados have been know to take rather harmless objects and turn them into lethal piercing objects so when a big chunk of foam came off and struck the leading edge it was just dismissed as a non-issue. They did make some attempts to image the area but even if they knew about the damage they had no way to repair it and the shuttle was in the wrong orbit to get to the space station. So as they made their re-entry the team on the ground witnessed a steady progression of failed sensors indicating an ominous progression of failure within the left wing. The crew were informed that instrumentation was being lost in that wing and I am sure the two pilots in the front seats knew just what that meant but again it was beyond anyone’s ability to make a difference and another crew perished at the alter of staying on schedule and budget. Management still refused to believe a mere piece of foam could do that sort of damage but allowed for a test shot of foam vs. leading edge to be made. The real material was expensive so an initial test was done with a fiberglass facsimile that was somewhat stronger. The foam blew a hole right through it and everyone was stunned. So once again a problem was “Fixed”, the shuttle went back into service and again brave astronauts volunteered to take the perilous trip.
If you asked the average person to go on the shuttle as a passenger how likely do you think they would be to actually accept the opportunity? At first they might say yes but once the reality of the two disasters and the likelihood of other undiscovered shortcomings. On the way up the shuttle was a huge bomb that could be set off by thousands of possibilities. On the way down it is protected by a fragile heat protection system.
NASA always wanted to make space travel seem like an everyday activity but it will always be inherently dangerous and the domain of those with the Right Stuff.