Nov 1, 2007

The 100,000 Year Old Dream

I've dreamed of flying like a bird. Have you? Humans have dreamed of flying for 100,000 years. That's when the first Homo sapiens appeared in South Africa. Even our ancient ancestors must have looked at the birds in the sky and proclaimed, "Wow. . ."

I'm going to share a few of the purely human moments in our yearning for the sky.

Samuel Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, a professor of mathematics and astronomy, had a lifelong vision of achieving manned flight. With a government grant of $50,000 and after many years of experimentation and hard work, in November, 1903 Langley's dream of manned flight seem to be within his reach.

With a test pilot at the controls,and with journalists and a large crowd watching, a catapult launched Langley's new aircraft. But part of the aircraft snagged on the catapult. The aircraft plunged into water only 50 yards from the catapult.

The New York Times ridiculed Langley the next day, "The flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanics in from one to ten million years." Sadly, after years of hard work and a $50,000 government investment, Langley gave up on his dream of manned flight.

Ironically, only a few days later, on December 17, 1903, two young high school dropouts, with no university education, but with determination, a passion for experiment and scientific method, and an expenditure of less than $1,000, realized man's longtime dream of flight. Their names: Orville and Wilbur Wright.

A little over fifty years later, we dreamed not of aircraft, but spacecraft. In his autobiography, NASA legend Christopher Kraft described what he saw when America's first man in space, Alan Shepard, approach the launch pad:

"It was dark when he came out. Searchlights lit up the rocket. Shepard looked up at the rocket, shielding his eyes with a gloved hand. The light reflected off his silver suit. I felt a thrill pass through me. HE LOOKS LIKE A SPACE MAN, I thought. The moment was more thrilling than I expected."

A few years after that first American manned flight, January 1967, Kraft was in Mission Control, monitoring radio communications during a ground test of the first moon spacecraft Apollo 1.
Suddenly, Kraft heard "WE'RE On FIRE" from the spacecraft. Pure oxygen and a spark in the spacecraft resulted in near instant death of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.

Of the death of his good friend Gus Grissom and the other astronauts, Kraft wrote, "My stomach lurched and I felt sick all over, so weak and drained that I almost collapsed in my chair. . . We'd put three astronauts into harms way and made their escape impossible. They were dead and we knew that it was our fault."

But Kraft and his fellow visionaries at NASA didn't let the three astronauts die in vain. They didn't give up. They accepted the blame and the responsibility, and they fixed the problems in the Apollo spacecraft.

A little over two years later, Apollo 11 astronauts were preparing for their historic trip to the moon.
In his book "Carrying the Fire", Apollo astronaut Michael Collins described a letter from his wife that he read over and over the night before the famous moon flight. It was a poem, a portion of which is below:

"I could have sought by wit or wile Your bright dream to dim. And yet If I'd swayed you with a smile, My reward would be regret. So for once you shall not hear Of the tears, unbidden, welling; Or the nighttime stabs of fear. These, this time, are not for telling. Take my silence, though intended; Fill it with the joy you feel. Take my courage, now pretended- You, my love, will make it real.
we dream, we try, we fail.

There are all kinds of flight, not all of them the physical variety. We don't need wings or rockets to fly. All we need is a dream, and courage.

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