On Nov. 21, 1783, French brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier launched the first piloted flight of a hot-air balloon. Recognized as the first human flight, this event is rightly celebrated. However, while lighter-than-air craft provided scheduled transportation for a handful of years early in the twentieth century, 235 years later, such technology has little use — for only a few niche applications.

Indeed, it would take 120 years for Americans Orville and Wilbur Wright’s controlled, powered, heavier-than-air machines to usher in the age of practical, widespread flight. And, as the United States enters its longest period without an American-made rocket carrying people into outer space since the early 1960s, there’s a temptation to think we’re in a similar lull to that which followed the Montgolfier launch.

However, despite such popular impressions, America actually does a lot in outer space today. Even without an indigenous manned-launch capacity, the International Space Station (ISS) still orbits with American astronauts onboard. Meanwhile, satellite launch costs have plummeted and weather monitoring and military intelligence uses continue to expand. Millions use the satellite-based GPS each day. Moreover, there is more economic activity and there are currently more jobs associated with space than there were in the late 1960s—the heyday of the moon race.

Indeed, next summer, as both Boeing and SpaceX launch astronauts for test flights and eventually to the ISS, we should see America’s return to human spaceflight on U.S.-built craft. Further, long-delayed, sub-orbital tourist flights, which will launch from the United States on spacecraft developed here—should also take place sometime in the next few years. Put simply, space travel and other space technology are quite busy moving forward.

It is in large part for these reasons that in a special “space month” initiative, the Federal Communications Commission is also considering a number of important regulatory tweaks, which would cover everything from space-debris mitigation to early regulatory approval for thousands of next-generation communications satellites. These efforts will provide appropriate regulations while simultaneously allowing the private sector to pursue its own ambitions.

So, even if a lull in space technology like the one that occurred between balloon and air travel does not actually exist, as we usher in this new era of space technology, the path between those technologies still offers some lessons.

First, the “easiest” method may not always be the best. The fact that exhaust fumes from a fire could lift objects was probably discovered prehistory. Building balloons capable of carrying humans simply required some advances in paper-making that the Montgolfiers made.But this was mostly a dead end, as more than a century of experimenting with lighter-than-air craft didn’t really produce much widespread, practical use. After all, flying on the basis of such gases was simply too dangerous, slow, unstable and difficult to control. Indeed, advances in everything from physics to materials science were needed to build airplanes. And likewise, there’s a good chance that highly volatile rockets we now use to get into space are not going to be the basis of sustained, common space travel. In fact, something else — like a system that functions more akin to a jet engine or even a space elevator — may be the best way to launch people and materials off the planet.

Second, early aviation teaches us that there’s a public sector role to be played in financing and promoting space flight. While the Wright brothers themselves weren’t directly government subsidized in the first instance (the Montgolfiers had a governmental patron in the French king), they did participate in an ecosystem of conferences and events on flight sponsored and supported by the Smithsonian Institution and then-War Department. Later, contracts to build military systems and deliver mail, combined with subsidies for airfields, gave commercial aviation interests a head start. This demonstrates that flight was never a wholly private endeavor and we shouldn’t expect spaceflight to be either.

And finally, these public efforts are best when they take a light touch with regulations and subsidize activities rather than specific technologies. For example, in developing their airplane, the Wright Brothers’ main American competitor (the Smithsonian’s Samuel Pierpont Langley) had the security of government funding and made some interesting developments. Nevertheless, he ultimately failed to produce a working craft. In part, this was because he stuck with a single technological solution. The Wrights succeeded both because they could learn from the failures of Langley and others, and because all parties involved weren’t caught up in red tape. Early flight was quite dangerous but nobody in Washington or elsewhere said: “flying is prohibited.”

Thankfully, at least so far, it appears that today’s regulators at the FCC, the Federal Aviation Administration and elsewhere seem to have absorbed these lessons. And, if the United States is to continue its tradition of flight technology, they should continue to do so.

Image by PashkaRay

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