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Slipping The Surly Bonds Of Earth:

William Samuel Henson and the Birth of Aviation


by Chris Oakley


Part 18



Summary: In the previous seventeen episodes of this series we followed the course of William Samuel Henson’s development of the world’s first practical airplane and the birth of Henson’s partnership with Cornelius Vanderbilt; the introduction of planes 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 team and the beginning of commercial flight in America; the influence of the American Civil War on military aviation doctrine and technology in the late 1860s and early 1870s; the invention of the famous Merlin engine; Henson’s experimentation with trans-Atlantic flight near the end of his life; the first successful trans-oceanic aircraft flights; the multiple bankruptcies that reshaped the aviation industry during the late 19th century; the Wright brothers’ creation of the very first practical all-metal monoplane; the role of airpower in World War I and Russia’s 1917  October Revolution; the birth of the jet engine in the 1920s; Nazi Germany’s launch of the world’s first artificial satellite; jet combat operations in the early years of World War II and the Battle of Pearl Harbor; the start of Anglo-American cooperation in the fields of rocket science and atomic fission research; the use of combat jets at Wake Island and Stalingrad; the early days of the development of the US Lexington intercontinental rocket; the Allied jet & rocket campaign against Germany prior to the Overlord and Bagration campaigns of 1944 and the jet’s role in the final Allied victory in Europe; the atomic bomb raids on Japan which ended the Pacific war; the US-Soviet race to be the first nation to put a man in space in the early 1950s; and the commemoration of the centennial anniversary of Henson’s historic 1851 test flight aboard the Icarus. In this chapter we’ll look at US and Soviet efforts to put a man on the moon and the invention of the first V/STOL1 jet aircraft.


While the budding Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union may have given added incentive for rocket science in both countries to develop the capability to send human beings to the Moon, it was probably inevitable that the superpowers would have tried to mount a sustained lunar exploration effort sooner or later. Since the beginning of human history human beings have been fascinated by the Moon; one of William Samuel Henson’s first motivations for developing a practical flying machine was a wish to see the Moon’s face up close.

The Soviets were embarrassed that the United States had gotten men into space before they did, and they wanted to avenge that embarrassment the first chance they got. Yet even the most optimistic man in the Soviet space program realized that it would take years before a lunar landing could be attempted, let alone accomplished. Still, there were short-term options open to the Soviets if they wanted to steal the Americans’ thunder in the space race-- and in the summer of 1953 Georgi Malenkov, Stalin’s successor as CPSU general secretary, decided to exercise one of those options.

Malenkov had noted with considerable interest that there were no women among the ranks of the Project Mercury astronauts; if a woman flew into orbit on the next Vostok mission, he mused, such an event would be a great propaganda coup for Moscow because the Kremlin could cite it as proof that the Communist attitude toward women was more progressive than that of the capitalist world. On a more practical note, such a mission would present biologists with the opportunity to learn whether space travel affected women differently than it did men.

As his guinea pig Malenkov chose former combat pilot Anna Yegorova, one of the greatest Soviet military aviators of the Second World War. Yegorova, who’d flown over 270 combat missions during the war and twice narrowly eluded capture by the Germans, was a highly trained flyer and used to dealing with high-pressure situations, making her an ideal candidate to be the first woman to fly in space. In one way the mission was a kind of homecoming for her: the flight control system for the Vostok capture was in many respects similar to the one she’d used in her old Ilyushin attack plane.

Yegorova launched into space on August 17th, 1953, setting a new milestone in spaceflight history and catching NASA completely off guard. There weren’t even any women under consideration for astronaut training by the agency, much less assigned to upcoming actual missions. For new US president Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was then just starting out his first term and had made it one of the key priorities of his administration to preserve America’s edge in space, word of the Yegorova mission came as a bit of an embarrassment. Even more embarrassing, it would take NASA almost four years to send the first American woman into space; Moscow’s propaganda machine made hay with this gaffe on Washington’s part, and for a time it seemed like America’s space program couldn’t do anything right...


....but less than two years after Yegorova’s flight the United States reasserted its pre-eminence in space travel with a feat that seemed too fantastic to even be contemplated, let alone attempted. In June of 1955 Richard Bong, who’d flown the second Project Mercury mission, made space exploration history again by carrying out the first spacewalk as part of his assigned tasks for the maiden voyage of the second generation of American manned spacecraft, the Janus.2

Bong was aided in his accomplishment by a new and improved type of pressure suit that had been developed during the latter stages of the Mercury program. The new pressure suit was better insulated against the cold of space and gave enhanced protection against space’s vacuum; it also had an improved air circulation system and a more reliable radio headset.3 To record the moment for posterity Bong had taken a home movie camera with him on the flight and the images it captured, while somewhat grainy, would give the public a view of the heavens it had never seen before.

But all too soon, triumph would give way to devastating tragedy....


October 4th, 1957 dawned as one of the most beautiful days Cape Canaveral had seen in a long time. After over two years of orbital maneuvers and practice docking with Project Janus, NASA was ready to debut its new lunar flight vehicle, appropriately dubbed the Explorer. Space veterans Charles Yeager and Richard Bong and newcomer Alan Shepard were preparing to carry out an engine startup test for the prototype craft Explorer I; if all went well on the startup test, the actual Explorer I mission-- a multi-orbit flight intended to check the Explorer capsule’s spaceworthiness and the booster systems which would be used on subsequent Explorer missions --would take place within 90 days.

But unbeknownst to the Explorer I crew or NASA officials, the capsule’s electrical system had a dangerous flaw which made it susceptible to short-circuits and would lead to one of the worst disasters in space exploration history. At 10:32 AM, Cape Canaveral ground controllers heard Alan Shepard urgently shouting over the radio: "We’ve got a fire in the cockpit...somebody get us out of here!" The simple act of flipping a switch to start the Explorer’s main engine systems had caused a short circuit which touched off a fire inside the Explorer I command module; the fire spread quickly as a result of the pure oxygen atmosphere inside the command module. By the time launch pad technicians managed to fight their way through the smoke pouring out the capsule and get the hatch open a mere five minutes after Shepard transmitted his original distress signal, Explorer I’s crew was dead, killed by a lethal combination of third-degree burns and smoke inhalation.

The Explorer I disaster would set America’s lunar program back at least a year. The Eisenhower Administration, unwilling to risk any more American lives in space until the exact cause of the Explorer I fire had been determined, ordered all NASA manned space activity suspended until further notice; during the time that NASA’s manned space efforts were on hiatus, the Soviet Union would aggressively work to catch up to the United States in the space race, and for a while there were fears among NASA officials that the Soviets might even win the competition to be the first nation to put a man on the Moon.

Yet the Soviet lunar program wouldn’t be immune to calamity either; less than four months after the Explorer I fire the first prototype for the Soviet lunar flight vehicle, code-named Salyut ("progress"), exploded during engine ignition for the start of an unmanned test flight. At least six ground technicians were killed by the explosion itself, and two more would later die from third- degree burns sustained as a result of the blast. The new Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, was personally shaken by news of the disaster; he had intended to visit Baikonur to witness the test launch but had cancelled those plans at the last minute because of urgent matters of state. As Khrushchev himself later put it in his memoirs eleven years later: "I trembled when I realized just how close I had come to joining those men who were killed in the Baikonur explosion."


In mid-December of 1958, NASA resumed manned spaceflight launches at Cape Canaveral. By then, engineers had redesigned the Explorer command module’s hatch to make it easier to open in an emergency and fixed the flaws in its electrical system; also, the pure oxygen atmosphere inside the capsule had been replaced with an oxygen-nitrogen mixture similar to the one which constituted Earth’s own atmosphere.

Also by that time, Sutherland and Sons had joined forces with Hughes Aviation to produce the world’s first vertical/short takeoff & landing(V/STOL) military aircraft, the Harrier. Since its foundation as an upstart rival4 to ATC Sutherland had come a long way, and was now one of the most important players in the British aerospace industry; when Howard Hughes had first devised his radical idea of a jet aircraft that could take off and land like a helicopter, he was quick to take Sutherland-- which then had the best private aerospace research & development staff in continental Europe --on as a partner in refining the concept of V/STOL.

The process of developing the Harrier was almost as fraught with complications and peril as the US-Soviet race for the moon. Just getting it off the drawing boards and constructing a working prototype of the new jet plane was a challenge and a half to the Hughes-Sutherland design team; during the early test flight phase of the Harrier project, two test pilots were killed and a third seriously injured, and in the later development stages the plane exhibited an unfortunate tendency to wobble during takeoff. But once the bugs were finally worked out, the Harrier sparked great interest among naval aviation branches in the Western world. The  Harrier also attracted the notice of the RAF, who believed the new jet’s short takeoff and landing capabilities might come in rather handy in any future conflict between the Western powers and the Soviet Union.

Initially the United States Air Force was skeptical about the Harrier’s value as a combat aircraft; the top USAF generals felt the new "jump jet"-- as it had been nicknamed by the British press --was too slow and ungainly to be effective in tactical air operations. But this mentality would change sooner or later: at almost the same time the Harrier was making its operational debut with the Royal Navy’s carrier aviation branch, a fierce guerrilla war was underway in South Vietnam, and after the United States  got involved in that war the Harrier would come to be recognized as eminently suited for ground attack missions within the rugged terrain of the Vietnamese jungles...


Ironically, although the United States had begun its moon race with the Soviet Union under a Republican president, it would be under the administration of Massachusetts Democrat John F. Kennedy that NASA would eventually fulfill its goal of putting a man on the Moon by 1963. In Congress, Kennedy had played a major role in encouraging bipartisan support for NASA as a whole and the Explorer lunar project in particular; in fact, JFK’s space agenda would be even more ambitious than Eisenhower’s had been. In Kennedy’s view, the lunar landing was just the opening chapter of a longer-term effort to extend man’s reach through the stars. He envisioned following the lunar landing with the establishment of permanent space stations in earth orbit and the beginning of a comprehensive exploration of the outer planets of Earth’s solar system-- with particular attention to Mars. In one of his first major speeches as commander-in-chief, Kennedy set the grand aim for NASA of sending a manned orbital mission to Mars by the year 1980.

The Soviets were startled by this bold program Kennedy had outlined; many of the Soviet government’s top space experts had told Nikita Khrushchev that the earliest a manned mission to the red planet could even be considered was 1995. And that was if the world was lucky enough to avoid a nuclear war in the meantime. If Khrushchev had any doubts about his nation’s ability to beat the Americans to the Moon or Mars, however, he apparently kept those doubts to himself. His response to the experts was that the USSR would take over the lead in the space race, and in the summer of 1962 he sought to prove it by ordering that a specially modified Salyut craft be launched on a lunar orbital mission right before NASA’s own lunar orbital flight, Explorer 5, was scheduled to be launched from Cape Canaveral.

The Soviet lunar orbital mission, officially designated as Salyut 4, would be commanded by Gherman A. Titov, who had flown the final mission on the Vostok project; accompanying him on the mission would be veteran Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, who’d been the first Russian to walk in space, and Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet air force test pilot who would be making his maiden space flight. Apart from a minor malfunction with one of the indicator lights on the command module console fifteen minutes after Salyut 4 blasted off from Baikonur, everything seemed to be going rather well, and Khrushchev looked forward to the moment when he could make the official announcement that Salyut 4 had made the first successful manned orbit around the Moon.

But early on the fourth day of the mission, Yuri Gagarin sent a chilling radio message to Baikonur ground controllers: "We have a problem....our number two oxygen tank has failed."


To Be Continued



1 Vertical/short takeoff and landing.

2 Named in honor of the double-faced ancient Roman god of the new year.

3 One frequent complaint of the Mercury astronauts was that the radio headsets in their helmets had an unfortunate habit of cutting out a third of the time, all too often in the midst of communications with flight controllers back on Earth.

4 See Part 8.


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