Following the Legacy of the Wright brothers
Sixty-six years after the First Flight of the Wright brothers, Wernher von Braun’s Saturn V rocket powered Apollo 11 carried Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin to the moon. In so doing he demonstrated that men could fly into space, thus greatly extending what the Wright brothers had started at Kitty Hawk with their first flight of 120 feet.
Wilbur and Orville were the first to define and solve the problem of flight – – be able to (a) take-off from the earth, (b) sustain flight under control and (c) land safely.
Von Braun’s Apollo 11 system was a magnificent demonstration of the application of this basic approach to space flight.
In 1999, Aviation Week & Space Technology polled aerospace professionals worldwide to name the top 100 stars of aerospace. Over one million responses were received. The Wright brothers came in first and von Braun was second.
von Braun was born into a wealthy aristocratic family in 1941. Orville, born in 1871 and Wilbur born in 1867, came from a middle class family. They all had one significant thing in common, their passion for flying.
Von Braun flew small planes, multi-engine, executive jets, fighter planes, old converted bombers, seaplanes and gliders. He even flew faster than the speed of sound
They had many other things in common. This article will present a few of them.
The Wrights had a high school education but didn’t received diplomas. von Braun received a BSME in Engineering and a Ph.D. in physics in Germany.
High schools provided a solid education when the Wright brothers attended school. It enabled the brothers to later self-educate themselves sufficiently to research, test and design an airplane. Wilbur in particular was able to self-educate himself at home during a period of illness that resulted from an injury received from playing hockey in high school. Their father, Bishop Wright, had a library that included books on science, engineering and mathematics as well as religion, philosophy, geography, geology and politics.
Orville was challenged about his capability to do 7th grade math upon moving to Dayton from Indiana. At the end of the year he received the top grade on the city-wide math exam.
von Braun as a child disliked math, but decided that he would need to be proficient in it if he expected to learn about space travel.
The Wrights and von Braun were excellent readers. Orville demonstrated to his second grade teachers that he could read a book upside down. Von Braun could read a newspaper upside down at the age of 4.
They all had photographic memories.
Von Braun wrote articles for the school magazine. Orville started a school newspaper.
Influence of Family:
The Wrights’ mother attended Hartsville College and studied literature, math, Latin and Greek. She was the daughter of a wagon maker. She learned how to use tools from her father. She encouraged her sons to build things and learn how things worked.
Von Braun’s mother was well educated. She spoke 6 languages, loved great music and fine art and was a serious ornithologist and astronomer.
Her son learned to play the piano, and at 15 composed music, writing 3 short original pieces for the piano.
Both families provided a religious environment. The Wrights’ father was a Bishop in the United Brethren Church and their mother had religious training. von Braun studied the world’s religions and loved to talk about religion and philosophy and would often quote by memory from the Bible.
Critics warned the Wrights’ that “if God wanted man to fly he would have given them wings.”
Von Braun was told that “his rockets were punching holes in the sky causing a draught.”
In later years Orville said, “We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always enough encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity. In a different kind of environment, our curiosity might have been nipped long before it could have borne fruit.”
Bishop Wright on returning from a trip brought the brothers a toy helicopter type machine that would fly. Wilbur was age 11 and Orville age 7 at the time. They were fascinated with the gadget and tried to make it larger so they could fly. It didn’t work, but that early experience with flight helped rekindle their interest later on.
Von Braun at 15 read a science fiction article that described an imaginary flight to the moon. This fueled his interest further after he had earlier attached 6 large rockets to his wagon that propelled it into a fruit stand.
Orville and von Braun were free spirits as children and often got in trouble with their pranks. That didn’t stop them from continuing the practice into adulthood.
When they were older and both serious about their dreams, they consulted famous men who would become their mentors. For the Wright’s it was Octave Chanute, the senior expert on gliders and flying in the U.S.
For von Braun it was rocket scientist Hermann Obeth. Von Braun sent for his book, “The Rocket into Interplanetary Space,” and later at the age of 18 volunteered to be an apprentice for him.
Obeth believed that you could build a machine which (a) could climb beyond our atmosphere, (b) that man could leave the gravity of Earth, (c) that man could survive flight in a ship in space, and (d) that the exploration of space could be profitable.
Experimenting with airplanes and rockets was dangerous business. Neither Von Braun nor the Wright brothers died because of their work although they had close calls. You might say they had nine lives.
Von Braun survived launch-pad explosions, almost being hit by an incoming V-2 warhead in Germany, Allied bombing raids during Word War II, imprisonment by Himmler and the Gestapo, a car wreck that killed his driver, a serious attack of hepatitis, errant U.S. missiles and a near miss in an aircraft.
Orville survived a crash of the 1902 glider at Kitty Hawk, a crash of the 1904 airplane in August and again in November at Huffman Prairie in Dayton, and a crash of the 1905 airplane in Dayton. A crash of the Flyer during the U.S. Army qualification tests on September 17, 1908 at Fort Myer almost killed him and there was another accident at Fort Myer the following year. Orville flew the 1911 glider into the side of a hill at Kitty Hawk and crashed the glider again 6 days later. He was in a train wreck in France in January 1909.
They each won the gold Langley medal. The Wright brothers were the first to receive the medals and von Braun won his 59 years later. He was the thirteenth person to receive the medal.
The Smithsonian established the Langley Medal in 1908 at the suggestion of Alexander Graham Bell. It is awarded for “meritorious investigations in connection with the science of aerodynamics and its application to aviation.
The Apollo 11 Astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins are also Langley Medal winners.
All three men shared their critics; whose opinions were that all three were crazy, flakes and more.
Von Braun put it in perspective. “Enthusiasm and faith are necessary ingredients of every great project. Prophets have always been laughed at, deplored and opposed, but some prophets have proved to be following the true course of history.”