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Slipping The Surly Bonds Of Earth:

William Samuel Henson and the Birth of Aviation



by Chris Oakley



Part 17




Summary: In the previous sixteen episodes of this series we reviewed British inventor William Samuel Henson’s development of the world’s first practical airplane and establishment of his partnership with Cornelius Vanderbilt; the introduction of airplanes to modern warfare and the role of airpower in the Union’s victory in the American Civil War; the postwar breakup of the Vanderbilt-Henson alliance; the dawn of commercial flight in America; how the Civil War shaped military aviation technology and doctrine in the late 1860s and early 1870s; the birth of the famous Merlin engine; Henson’s experiments with trans-Atlantic flight in the last days of his life and the first successful trans-oceanic aircraft flights; the wave of bankruptcies that overwhelmed the aviation industry in the late 19th century; the Wright brothers’ creation of the first practical all-metal monoplane; the crucial role of airpower in the First World War and Russia’s 1917 October Revolution; the birth of the jet engine; Nazi Germany’s launching of the world’s first artificial satellite; jet combat operations in the early years of the Second World War; the Battle of Pearl Harbor; the beginning of Anglo-American cooperation in the areas of rocket science and atomic fission research; the role of jets in the battles of Wake Island and Stalingrad; the early days of the development of the US Lexington intercontinental rocket; the Allied jet & rocket campaign against Germany in the months prior to the Overlord and Bagration offensives of 1944; the jet’s role in the final Allied victory in Europe; the atomic bomb raids on Japan which ended the Pacific war; and the beginnings of the US- Soviet race to be the first to put a man in space in the early 1950s. In this installment we’ll relive the heady days of the first suborbital manned flights by the United States and the Soviet Union and look back on some of the events held to mark the 100th anniversary of Henson’s maiden powered flight.



The respective approaches taken by the United States and the Soviet Union towards the quest to put a human being in space were a reflection of the starkly contrasting ideologies which governed the two superpowers’ political and cultural systems. The Soviet Union kept a tight veil of secrecy over the Vostok program, not even telling Ivan Kozhedub he’d been chosen as the pilot for the first Vostok launch until just twelve hours before Kozhedub was to begin flight training; furthermore, the launch date for that historic mission was only given out on a need-to-know basis, so anyone not already cleared by Lavrenti Beria’s secret police to be informed of this or any other pertinent information concerning the Vostok project was essentially out of luck.

Scientific activities related to the Vostok launch were under rigid government control, and any man who deviated in the slightest degree from the rosy picture Beria had ordered Sergei Korolev to paint for Stalin in his daily reports could at the very least expect to get fired from the project and blackballed from all future Soviet space research. And those were the lucky ones; the not-so-lucky ones could be (and more than once were) executed by NKVD firing squads. Moscow even went so far as to build a fake launch complex in Siberia to dupe the outside world into thinking that Baikonur1 was only being used for satellites.

While a certain degree of secrecy also had its place in the American Mercury program, its space scientists had a considerably freer hand in their work; furthermore, President Truman insisted on and got the unvarnished truth from Project Mercury’s executive staff in their progress reports. And while Moscow’s manned space effort was entirely a creature of the state, Washington’s was an energetic partnership between the public and private sectors; at least a third of the technicians, mathematicians, and engineers  who worked on Project Mercury were either already employed by the private sector, just retiring from it, or soon to be recruited by it.

Cape Canaveral, where civilian rocket science research had resumed shortly after the Second World War ended, became the main hub of activity for Project Mercury. Under NASA’s direction the launch complex expanded to three times its prewar size to meet Mercury’s needs; by the time the Mercury program came to an end in 1953, Cape Canaveral would be roughly equivalent in size to a typical postwar East Coast suburb.


In many respects, Major Charles Yeager was a perfect metaphor for the country he represented and the space program for which he would soon be flying. Rugged, optimistic, and eager to push the edge of the envelope, Major Yeager had a wealth of combat flight experience to his credit along with the distinction of having set a world altitude record back in 1947; the prospect of becoming the first human being to fly into space was a compelling lure for him, and he threw himself into Project Mercury’s training regimen with a vigor that startled everyone around him-- and even Yeager himself at times. When he was chosen in June of 1949 as the first of seven astronaut trainees for the initial flight pool of the Mercury program, it was one of the proudest moments of his life, and he was determined to make the most of it.

In the spring of 1951 Maj. Yeager got the official call to serve as mission pilot for the maiden flight of Project Mercury, dubbed "Freedom" by a fervently patriotic NASA official. As the backup pilot for the historic flight the agency chose another World War II veteran, Major Richard I. Bong; as the top-scoring American fighter ace of the Second World War, Major Bong lent the Mercury program a welcome added touch of heroism-- and that was a handy thing to have around when it came time to seek funding from Congress to continue the project.2

On May 5th, 1951 spectators, newsreel cameras, and NASA senior officials gathered at Cape Canaveral to witness the launch of the first Project Mercury flight. At 10:30 AM, loudspeakers in front of the spectators’ benches started counting down the final sixty seconds until it was time to launch "Freedom" into space; it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. At 10:31 AM that quiet gave way to the thunder of rocket engines as Yeager’s capsule rose off its launch pad and began soaring into the Florida sky.

The United States had won its race with the Soviet Union to be the first nation to put a human being into space.


Joseph Stalin, who’d been complacently certain the USSR would get a man into space before the Americans did, was furious when the Soviet embassy in Washington notified him of the Freedom sub- orbital flight. He fired a dozen of Sergei Korolev’s technicians and had many others shot, and Korolev himself might have fired or executed had it not been for his elite status within the Soviet scientific community. As it was, Korolev was forced to endure a vicious dressing down from the Vozhd3 and write a report for the Kremlin in which he accepted full responsibility for the Soviet  manned space program’s failure to be first to put a human being into space.

Charles Yeager, on the other hand, was the toast of the town. After he returned from his historic spaceflight, Yeager was given a ticker tape parade through the streets of New York and received a personal commendation at the White House from President Truman. Time and Life magazines both featured him on their front covers; Congress unanimously passed a resolution lauding the major as "a twentieth-century Magellan"; baseball manager Leo Durocher of the New York Giants sent him a jersey autographed by the whole team4; movie mogul Louis B. Mayer hosted a lavish banquet for Yeager at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles; and Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston wrote an article for the Boston archdiocesan newspaper The Pilot calling Yeager’s flight "a harbinger of the next great age of American progress."

If Stalin had been enraged when the United States put a man in space before the Soviet Union did, he was downright homicidal after NASA beat the Soviets to the punch again in the contest to make the first successful manned orbital flight. On August 23rd, 1951-- just six weeks before the Vostok project was scheduled to make its first attempt to put a man in orbit --Richard I. Bong, Yeager’s backup man for Project Mercury’s Freedom mission, took the capsule Independence into space on the first-ever manned orbital flight, circling the earth twelve times before bringing his capsule to a safe if somewhat shaky landing off Florida’s Atlantic coast.5 This time Stalin had Sergei Korolev arrested; Korolev spent nearly a month in prison before he was released at the urging of Stalin’s senior advisors, who warned the Soviet ruler that keeping Korolev in jail much longer would deprive the the Vostok project of the rocket scientist’s expertise at a time when it was needed most and allow the United States to widen its lead over the USSR in the space race.


1951 marked the centennial anniversary of William Samuel Henson’s historic test flight aboard the Icarus, and in honor of the occasion a number of artworks and events were commissioned to honor the dawn of the Age of Flight. Naturally, Henson’s homeland Britain was the center of the hoopla surrounding the centennial; the General Post Office6 issued a stamp bearing Henson’s portrait on it, while British Lion Films Corporation released the biopic Henson to theaters in the UK and the Commonwealth in February of that year7 and the London Philharmonic premiered a choral piece,  "Wings of Humanity", on New Year’s Day. In March of 1951 RAF ace and World War II veteran Douglas "Tin Legs" Bader, a longtime admirer of the pioneering aerospace inventor, re-enacted Henson’s legendary test flight to the delight of a massive crowd which included King George VI and the British royal family.

In the United States the centennial was marked by a three-day aviation science symposium at Vanderbilt University, named after Henson’s former partner Cornelius Vanderbilt and home of America’s first aerospace engineering school; a three-month-long nationwide tour by the Tuskegee Airmen, by that time the most famous aerobatic demonstration team in the Western world; the dedication of the Confederate Aerial Cavalry Monument in South Carolina; the re-christening of Boston’s main civil airfield as Shaw Airport in honor of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw; the release of three 20th Century Fox aviation-themed movies, all of them box office hits and one of them a contender for 1952 Best Picture Oscar; the unveiling of a granite statue at Gettysburg National Battlefield Memorial commemorating Union aviators killed in the Civil War; and the opening of the National Aerospace Museum in Washington.

But what may have been the most significant American event of aviation’s centennial year happened in June when President Truman, speaking at a university commencement address in West Virginia, revealed that he had committed NASA to putting a man on the moon by 1963. To those who said that such a monument feat might be too difficult to accomplish with the available rocket technology, Truman responded that NASA was working day and night to improve such technology and added: "We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy but because it is hard, and it is by accomplishing hard tasks that nations define their greatness."


To Be Continued...



1 The Soviet Union’s main rocket science research center and launch facility at the time Stalin was in power; it still plays a major part in post-Communist Russia’s space program.

2 Bong would finally get into space as mission pilot for the second Mercury flight, dubbed "Independence".

3 Russian for "boss"; it had been Stalin’s nickname since the 1930s.

4 In October of 1951 Yeager would return the favor by throwing the ceremonial first pitch at the legendary Giants-Dodgers game which climaxed with Bobby Thomson’s famous "shot heard round the world" home run.

5 The hatch for Bong’s capsule opened prematurely during splashdown, causing water to start leaking into the capsule’s interior. Had it not been for a quick-thinking Navy frogman who helped Bong shut the hatch from the outside, the capsule might have been flooded and sunk to the ocean floor; as it was, it took Navy engineers the better part of 48 hours to dry out Independence’s interior once the capsule was recovered.

6 This division of the British government formerly controlled both Britain’s postal service and telecommunications; since 1981 the postal division of the GPO has been operating as a separate limited government-owned company called Royal Mail.

7 The movie would make its US debut shortly after Charles Yeager’s flight into space aboard "Freedom"; it was subsequently nominated for four Academy Awards and won two(Best Original Score and Best Supporting Actor for John Carradine’s performance as Cornelius Vanderbilt).


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