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Slipping The Surly Bonds Of Earth:

William Samuel Henson and the Birth of Aviation


by Chris Oakley


Part 20



Summary: In the previous nineteen episodes of this series we followed the course of aviation and spaceflight history from the first experiments in powered flight by British aviation pioneer William Samuel Henson in the mid-19th century to the historic lunar landing mission of Explorer VII in 1963. In this segment we’ll look at the first efforts to establish permanent space stations in Earth orbit and review the beginning of the age of commercial supersonic flight.


Now that the Moon had been attained, the United States and the Soviet Union turned their focus in space exploration to the quest for the first permanent orbiting space station. The idea of a permanent outpost in orbit around the Earth had been a science fiction staple since the days of Hugo Gernsback; now Kennedy and Khrushchev aimed to make it a reality. For Kennedy, it would be a chance to build on the prestige the United States had gained by achieving the first successful lunar landing, while Khrushchev saw the quest for a permanent space station as an opportunity to redeem the Soviet space program’s reputation after the heartbreak of losing the moon race to the Americans.

In fact, even as John Glenn was leaving footprints in the soft gray lunar dust of Mare Tranquilitatus, blueprints were already being drawn for conceptual space station designs; NASA hoped to have a space station in active service by 1970, while the Soviets aimed to put one in earth orbit no later than 1967. Kennedy, in the final months before his assassination, made it a major priority of his administration’s science program for 1964 to at least get the blueprints finished for what NASA would later designate a Manned Orbital Laboratory(MOL).

Vice-President Lyndon Johnson became Kennedy’s number one cheerleader for the MOL in the halls of Congress; after Kennedy was killed in November of 1963 and Johnson succeeded him as the President of the United States, the MOL project began to pick up steam. LBJ used the Oval Office as a bully pulpit from which to promote MOL as the next great step forward for America’s space program. Johnson’s own vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, touted the MOL concept as not only a boon to scientific progress but also a potential engine for economic growth for the US aerospace industry.

But less than a year after JFK’s death, the Gulf of Tonkin incident off the coast of Vietnam forced a radical change in the Johnson Administration’s priorities. MOL, US military support for the embattled government of South Vietnam, and Johnson’s Great Society domestic program were all high-cost projects; something would have to give. That something turned out to be the MOL’s budget, which was cut in half for fiscal 1965 to free up money to pay for what Johnson was increasingly seeing as the inevitable direct intervention of American ground troops in Vietnam.

The Soviets were greatly heartened by Johnson’s decision; it meant they had an opportunity to gain some ground on the US in the space race, possibly even take the lead. They redoubled their efforts to get a permanent manned space station operational by the end of the decade; some of the more daring senior officials in the Soviet space program wanted to go even further and try to put such a station in orbit before the end of the year. But given previous troubles with both the American and Soviet manned space programs, the powers-that-be at the Kremlin felt a bit of caution was warranted, and so when it was time to set a deadline for the establishment of the first permanent Soviet space outpost the men in charge of the space station project-- dubbed Soyuz or "Unity" for short --chose to set spring 1970 as their deadline for making the station operational. The 1970 deadline, it was thought, would give adequate to work all the bugs out while still keeping ahead of the American MOL program.


While the US-Soviet space race was making big headlines, a revolution in commercial air travel was quietly taking place on the drawing boards of the French aircraft firm Dassault and Great Britain’s venerable Sutherland & Sons. From the moment that the first supersonic combat aircraft had entered active service with the world’s major air forces, commercial airline CEOs had been speculating about the possibility of applying supersonic aviation technology to the job of making passenger air service faster. For the leaders of Britain and France, the notion of a dedicated SST1 passenger jet sounded like just the thing to boost their nations’ respective postwar economies; not only would the construction of  such jets provide much-needed manufacturing and engineering jobs, but regular supersonic flight between London and Paris would give a welcome lift to cross-Channel tourism.

The first steps toward producing a viable commercial SST plane were taken in September of 1948, when France and Britain signed an aerospace technology co-operation pact. This agreement cleared the way for Dassault and Sutherland engineers to start working together on developing the technology and configuration for what would eventually become the Concorde. During the next seven years, the Concorde R & D team would consider and reject literally a hundred different configurations before they finally settled on the right airframe for their creation.

In October of 1955, four months after Richard I. Bong’s historic spacewalk, the Dassault-Sutherland design team made some history of its own as the first prototype of the Concorde was rolled out for the world press. The correspondents gathered at Dassault’s main test airfield were duly impressed by the slender new jet; an American writer present for the occasion predicted that once regular Concorde service between London and Paris got going, it would just be a question of time before similar jets were traveling commercial air routes between New York City and Los Angeles.

But even as the public was ooh-ing and ah-ing over the new plane, ominous hints were already circulating that the Concorde might not be suited to the task for which it had been created. One prominent and frequent contributor to Great Britain’s most popular aviation magazine openly voiced fears that the new plane might tear itself apart the first time that it crossed the sound barrier; even one of Sutherland’s own design engineers privately confessed to a London Times correspondent on the condition of anonymity that he wasn’t entirely certain if Concorde was sturdy enough to cope with the stresses it would be subjected to during supersonic flight.

And to be sure, the Concorde’s birth had been a quite painful one indeed. The engines alone had been under development since at least the early 1940s;2 the airframe had already undergone dozens of changes by the time of the prototype’s rollout and would go on to be revised dozens more times before the new jet began regular passenger service. The senior British engineer on the Concorde’s R & D team would later joke to a BBC interviewer that he’d half- expected one of his colleagues to come charging out of the hangar at the last second and tell him the design needed to be reworked one more time.

Nobody was laughing, however, when engine troubles forced the Concorde prototype’s flight crew to prematurely terminate their second test flight. That incident seemed to bear out some of the criticisms which had been leveled at the Concorde by skeptics; it also caused aviation engineers in other countries to start having second thoughts about the feasibility of the whole SST concept.

Even without the mishap, however, it still would have been a long time before any other nation attempted to build a commercial supersonic aircraft. Simply building supersonic jets, much less flying and maintaining them, is an expensive proposition, and the cost was more than some countries could afford. Furthermore, many commercial air services, public and private alike, were perfectly content to go on using conventional jet transport planes for most passenger or cargo routes.

As for the superpowers, their eyes were focused mainly on the dark void of outer space. The United States’ first stab at an SST passenger plane, the Boeing 2707, wouldn’t even reach the drawing board until three weeks after the inaugural Project Mercury space mission. And once it finally did get onto the drawing board, it would end up staying there as backroom politics, safety concerns, and an almost endless catalog of technical problems kept Boeing from taking the appropriate steps to build a working prototype of the 2707.

In the Soviet Union, the Tupolev design bureau encountered its share of problems in this regard when it created the Tu-144. Georgi Malenkov, the Soviet premier at the time the Tu-144 was first conceived, was impatient to get the new plane into the air as quickly as possible to show the world that the Western powers didn’t have a monopoly on innovation in the field of supersonic passenger flight; his impatience would cost the Tupolev bureau a great deal of time and money-- and at least one of the bureau’s test pilots his life.

On June 18th, 1954 the Tu-144 took off on what was supposed to be a routine tryout of the new plane’s on-board navigational equipment and throttle control systems. Fifteen minutes into the flight, the pilot urgently radioed the control tower that he’d lost one engine and another was about to quit; before the tower could respond, the plane tilted over like a bowling pin and was soon spinning out of control. Back on the ground, Tupolev bureau engineers could only watch in mute horror as the jet slammed into the earth and caught fire.

That crash killed more than just the flight crew of the Tu-144 prototype; it also dealt a severe blow to Malenkov’s grand ambitions for the new passenger jet. The Soviet premier, whose ouster by Nikolai Bulganin in January of 1955 has been partly attributed by some political history scholars to the fallout from the Tu-144 prototype crash, had envisioned a fleet of 30 or so Tu-144s serving Aeroflot’s3 most important passenger routes both domestically and internationally and bringing glory to not only the Soviet aviation industry but the USSR as a whole. But as it turned out, only sixteen Tu-144s would ever roll off the Tupolev assembly line, and most of those sixteen jets would be confined to flying short domestic passenger routes. By the time Bulganin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, assumed the premiership in 1957 it had started to become clear the Tu-144 was the proverbial "white elephant" and an expensive one to boot; most Tu-144s would end up being retired from active service by the mid-1960s, and the last of the breed was mothballed in 1972.

But at least the designers at Tupolev could take some small comfort in the knowledge that their creation had made it into active service, albeit on a more modest scale and for a shorter timespan than those designers would have liked. Their brethren at Boeing would seethe in frustration as one roadblock after another popped up to stymie the Boeing 2707 from even getting as far as the prototype stage; the star-crossed project, whose budget kept swelling like Godzilla on steroids, was finally terminated in the summer of 1966 without a single plane being built.

And even the Concorde wouldn’t be immune from economic and technical difficulties during its operational lifespan. British Airways found much to its dismay that for every pound sterling it made from passengers flying between London and Paris, it lost six pounds on fuel and maintenance costs; to add insult to injury, it also turned out the Concorde had an unfortunate tendency to shake like a leaf at supersonic speeds. That kind of thing tends to put a damper on one’s flying experience.


Around about the same time Boeing pulled the plug on its star-crossed 2707 project, the race to put the first manned space station in Earth orbit was approaching its climax. In spite of the budget cuts which had been inflicted on NASA’s MOL program in the wake of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the US space agency had still managed to make considerable strides toward making the MOL a reality; however, the Soviets were leading the space station race if only by a narrow margin, and barring an unforeseen last- minute disaster it was increasingly apparent they would win the race.

It all came down to the final week of March 1967. Both the MOL team at NASA and their counterparts on the Soviet Soyuz project burned the midnight oil to gain that last edge which would make the difference in the competition to put the first permanent manned space platform in orbit. It turned out that the Soyuz team had just a bit more oil to burn; early in the morning Washington time on April 3rd, 1967 President Lyndon Johnson was awakened by a phone call from CIA director John McCone informing him that the Soyuz station itself had been successfully launched into Earth orbit and the first Soyuz crew was due to blast off in just a matter of hours.

For the Soviet Union, Soyuz’s debut was a welcome triumph in a space effort all too often marked by failure or even full-blown disaster. The Kremlin naturally took full advantage of the grand propagdanda opportunity offered it by the success of the Soyuz 1 mission. When Soyuz 1’s crew returned to Earth after ten days in orbit, they were given a lavish welcome-home parade in Moscow’s Red Square and awarded just about every medal it was possible to bestow on them. They visited every Communist country except for China and Albania, and plenty of non-Communist countries too; two months after the Soyuz 1 mission was completed, the cosmonauts who flew on that mission were the subjects of a BBC-TV interview seen by more than half the population of Great Britain.

William Samuel Henson would have been astonished to see how far the aerospace sciences had come in the 116 years since the maiden flight of the Icarus. He would have been surprised even more by the wonders that still lay ahead. With the moon having been attained and permanent space stations beginning to come into service, Mars was coming to be viewed more and more as the next great plateau to be reached in humanity’s continuing exploration of space; back on Earth, a new breed of commercial jets was being conceived on the drawing boards of the world’s largest aerospace companies and military V/STOL jets like the Harrier were bringing about a revolution in air warfare doctrine and tactics.


To Be Continued...



[1] Supersonic transport.

[2] For further information on the history of the evolution of the engine technology which helped make the Concorde possible, read Before Concorde Was Concorde:  The Development Of Supersonic Flight Propulsion, 1927-1945, copyright 2007 by Icarus Aviation Press.

[3] The Russian national airline during the Communist era.

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