Breaking the speed of analogies

Analogies. Everyone loves a good analogy, all the better when they cut right into the heart of a matter. Our space biz is not immune to the allure of analogies, chock full of complex backstories, technology, and eccentricities just begging to be simplified. Though when it’s oh so clear, it’s probably oversimplified. Elsewhere, the analogies are sounder, that is, until someone says “Moore’s law,” and the laughter says we just stretched that analogy until it snapped. One analogy still making regularly scheduled appearances compares rockets and space exploration to airplanes and air travel. Or rather, we see our rapid progress in the air as compared to the slow progress, or spurts and backsteps, when reaching for orbit and beyond.

The air to space analogy is ironic given air travel in recent decades. The sense of progress in the air no longer seems so sure or obvious. Boom Supersonic announced a $60M agreement with the US Air Force last week to research a supersonic airliner. For comparison, the first “A” in NASA, for aeronautics, had an $827M budget last year, or 3.6% of NASA’s budget. The “S” for space in NASA gets nearly the entirety of the budget, as probes and robots in space or for human spaceflight. This split seems natural if we assume a mature US air sector already gets all the investment it needs, public or private, because of so much progress. It would seemingly appear most of the job in aeronautics is done. We easily explain NASA’s relatively paltry aeronautics budget if we believe all there is to research is mainly in the past. That is until we see a company saying there is plenty more to come, and we can yet again go faster like the Concorde did, only better and profitably as well. Going further, if we are so enamored of the analogy of air travel to space travel, what happens if we run with it – at the risk of stretching it till it breaks?

The backstory is a classic, as a couple of high-school drop-outs turned bicycle makers fly the first powered, heavier than air airplane in 1903. The Wright brothers put the government effort to shame (that spent 70 times as much.) The next part of the story usually skips to the DC-3, a mere generation and a half later, making it possible for airlines to fly passengers profitably. Skip again, so the analogy continues, to the hugely successful Boeing 707 jetliner in 1954, providing an experience that anyone today would find familiar – minus an infotainment system. Finally, we have the massive 747 in 1969, the same year as we first land on the Moon, and in 1976 people are zipping around the globe supersonically in the British and French Concordes.

A still of some Super-8 footage taken by my father out the window of the jet in 1968, and my first time on an airplane. I  was three years old.
A still of some Super-8 footage taken by my father out the window of the jet in 1968, and my first time on an airplane. I was three years old.

My first flight on a jet was in 1968, and I was three. Ironically, though I did not know it at the time, I would never fly as fast ever again. All the jets started slowing down soon afterward for the sake of fuel efficiency. But that is just the start of the air-to-space analogy going sideways.

In 2003 the Concorde was retired, never recovering from the 2000 Air France crash leaving Paris. I recall landing in New York in 1999, and the sight of a Concorde on the runway nearby was enough reason for our pilot to make an announcement. He could have said – “if you look out the window on your left, there’s a plane I would like to be flying, instead of this bus.” Coincidentally, I had just recently read “The Concorde Story” some months earlier. Intrigued, dial-up line and all, I had even checked for a ticket – New York to London, $10,380.78. And yes, that’s one way.

Picture of a book cover - Highly recommended - "The Concorde Story"
Highly recommended – “The Concorde Story”
A print out of a ticket quote for the Concorde in 1999 - $10,380.78. One way, NY JFK to London Heathrow.
A ticket quote for the Concorde in 1999 – $10,380.78. One way, NY JFK to London Heathrow.

By then, I was fortunate to have worked on assorted spaceplane projects in NASA – in between my Shuttle duties – as far as projects that were very hardware poor can be called projects. It was then I had the pleasure of meeting people who had worked on engines in the 1960s that would be an aeronautics major’s dream today. Bill Escher wrote the book on technologies combining air and rocket modes – “The Synerjet Engine.” Fred Billig helpfully pointed out key concepts. “This is how that works – for real.”

Meanwhile, engineers from the National Aerospace Plane (NASP) days in the early 80s gave me first-hand accounts of just how the “Orient Express” program fell apart. NASA would continue with the X-43 a while, with the DOD running with the X-51 after that. As some NASA engineers kept at it, all that remained, often supporting the US DOD, was studies. But these seemed more about preserving and passing along knowledge, not generating more. The running joke was, “I’d tell you all about it, but then I’d have to shoot you.” This was not a formula for expanding knowledge, and as useful as these studies were, rehashing is no replacement for creating.

The NASA Flyer for the X-30 National Aero-Space Plane Program
The NASA Flyer for the X-30 National Aero-Space Plane Program

So, we first had Kitty Hawk in 1903. Just 52 years later, we have people flying in jets to see their relatives, seal a deal, or just to vacation. A couple of generations, then a little more, and we go even faster, supersonically, as if a natural next step. Here we get the sense so much has happened in aviation in so little time, from invention to democratization. We have flown the friendly skies and pushed boundaries further, faster, all well within a human lifetime.

Human spaceflight might mark its Kitty Hawk moment in 1961, with Gagarin and Shepard. Now 61 years on, we are hardly near when the family is packing to visit relatives on the Moon. (Great – now we have Auntie on the Moon – that’s better than when she was right near Disney!) Of course, it helped that air travel already had destinations we knew were ready to receive us with all the amenities – from Paris to Fiji. More so, the analogy breaks down when we look at the state of air travel today, where the case against advances like supersonic travel is about time. Going faster can hardly matter much when we are on the ground for most of our travel time. To reflect on spaceflight’s challenges and progress (or not), we’re going to need a bigger analogy.

NASA is building the X-59 supersonic demonstration vehicle to prove out quiet supersonic flight over land. The technology would “reduce loud sonic booms to a quiet thump.”

Now is when someone who is not an engineer aptly says it seems we have more technology now than we can manage. The crash of the Concorde in 2000, then September 11, 2001, and the loss of Columbia in 2003 reset much about the world. Yet I have cause for optimism. We still have reusable launch vehicles, now Falcon 9 boosters, elegantly landing vertically. Its legs open moments before landing like some sci-fi flick we might have found overly imaginative once upon a time. And now we may have a go at it again in supersonic flight, with Boom Supersonic, among others – including NASA. All of which takes us to the better analogy between progress in air travel and spaceflight, the desire to explore. As Carl Sagan said, “For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood. We invest far-off places with a certain romance.” 

The analogies never end, to guide and to question. The US government used Air Mail to encourage air transportation, and not so long-ago NASA used cargo to the ISS to promote commercial launch services. NASA even used the Air Mail analogy to justify the commercial cargo approach. On the flip-side, the questioning where spaceflight is said not to have advanced in its first few generations, as did air travel, neglects parts of each story. Spaceflight went from a man in orbit to men on the Moon in less than a decade. Yet we have not returned since. Similarly, air travel made great leaps up to the Concorde, only to backtrack as well.

As helpful as comparisons are, analogies and all, perhaps the real kinship between air travel and spaceflight is in the challenges. It’s a few steps forward and two steps back for journeys we have to hope always leave room to go further.

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