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Flight has captivated people for eons. What would it be like to fly? What is it like to be groundless yet still tethered safely to Earth by gravity? How does it feel to soar, to swoop, to glide, and to ride on the wind? What does our world or our neighborhood look like from a bird’s view?
Stories of flight have enthralled audiences since Daedalus and Icarus dared to fly. The Wright Brothers are national heroes, claimed as native sons by two states, for their trailblazing first controlled and powered flight —twelve seconds aloft. Today, flight is so commonplace, hundreds of transatlantic and cross-continental flights soar above us unnoticed every day. Yet, perhaps because it is unnatural for us, flight continues to mesmerize.
This week, three flight-related stories hit the airwaves. Singer Sarah Brightman announced she will be the seventh person to pay Space Adventures to travel to the International Space Station. She is expected to launch in 2013. (Just for fun, listen to her sing.) On Friday, NASA’s retired space shuttle, Endeavour, completed its final flight piggyback before beginning a 12 mile road trip on Los Angeles roadways to its final home at the California Science Center. The slow, three-day drive, which drew crowds of thousands, took a year to plan; city streets are not designed for a 78 feet long, 122 feet wide shuttle. Finally, Felix Baumgartner, daredevil extraordinaire and pilot, completed a groundbreaking supersonic 120,000 foot freefall in New Mexico on Sunday, October 14, 2012. The feat, which had been cancelled once because of high winds, was not simply a daring if puzzling jump from a stratospheric balloon; it was a scientific mission.
This week, take off and discover more about the history of flight, and Baumgartner’s plunge from the stratosphere.
The Wright Brothers Invent a Flying Machine
How were two bicycle mechanics and businessmen able to invent a flying machine? The Smithsonian Institute Air and Space Museum’s Wright Brothers exhibit is a natural first stop on your historical trip. Meet Wilbur and Orville Wright. View a gallery of artifacts from their lives and work in Dayton, Ohio. One unique key to the Wright brothers’ innovative success was their close working relationship. Read about their collaboration as publishers, printers, business owners, and bike-makers. On the surface (or in the air!), bicycles and flying machines do not seem to have much in common, but do not be fooled. There are conceptual connections between bikes and airplanes.
Invention is not so much about the creation of something new, but about the process by which something is created. Orville and Wilbur are known for inventing the first powered, controlled flying machine. But, even more significant contribution was their scientific process and what they discovered about flight. Follow the Wright brothers’ scientific inquiry: how did they learn about aeronautics, what discoveries did they make, what experiments did they conduct and what did those tests reveal? Begin in 1899 when their investigation began. Follow the links at the bottom right of each page to 1905, when their investigation ended. Hop over to YouTube to watch video footage of the first flight in 1903.
Pause for a moment to consider: exactly how does a plane fly? What are the principles behind flight? First, learn about the parts of a plane in the Smithsonian’s Airplane Anatomy. Learn how planes fly and the forces of flight: flow, lift and drag, and vortex. The Wrights were not trained engineers but they were natural scientists who tracked and graphed the results of various experiments.
The story of the Wright brothers does not end in 1903 on Kitty Hawk, the North Carolina beach where they first flew. Follow the Wright brothers from 1908 through 1910, as they patent, publicize, and sell their invention. Airplanes became a part of pop-culture, and the Wright brothers’ contribution was widely recognized.
An Industry is Born
The Wright brothers solved the problems that had plagued inventors and scientists for centuries and, doing so, introduced technology and an invention that changed the world. The military added airplanes to its arsenal. Commercial applications were abundant, including ferrying tourists around the globe. A new generation of pioneers picked up where the Wright brothers stopped. Among them were pilots who ignored the warnings and pushed the boundaries of flight with further and longer expeditions, businessmen who imagined and invested in new businesses, and scientists and innovators who designed new airplanes. Choose several men and women to investigate. Explore the manufacturers and the companies that built the backbone of the new commercial airline industry. See how planes have evolved: from the Wright Brothers Flyer; to passenger planes, such as the DC-3; the first jet; and the era of jumbo jets, such as the Boeing 747.
Visit the Web Routes tab to explore a host of related topics. One of the earliest commercial applications of flight was air mail, a dangerous and controversial endeavor.
Countless men and women helped propel flight to be the common mode of transportation it is today. Among the unsung aviation heroes are African American pioneers. The Smithsonian site shares the story of those early pioneers, war pilots, and Tuskegee airmen.
Freefalling for Science
On Sunday, Austrian-born Felix Baumgartner set records for the highest and fastest freefall ever. His freefall hit speeds of 1,342.8 km/hour, which makes him the first man to break the speed of sound in a freefall. He breaks the freefall record set 52 years ago by Joe Kittinger.
This was not like your run-of-the mill sky dive. Baumgartner rode into the stratosphere in a capsule pulled skyward by a high altitude balloon. Learn more about the planning, development, and testing that came before the final jump. Explore a timeline of the Red Bull Stratos mission. Learn more about how Baumgartner trained for the mission. After all that, there is the weather, a crucial factor for a successful launch.
Despite the dramatic hook—a freefall from above Earth—this was at its heart, a carefully planned scientific mission: speed, the atmosphere, meteorology, and physical effects. The Red Bull Stratos team hopes that their mission will contribute to space science. This mission would not be possible without the technology behind much of the equipment, including the suit, the balloon, the chest pack, and the parachute.