What the History of Early Flight Might Tell Us About the Future of Space Travel

The acting director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum on the new ‘Early Flight’ gallery

A woman holding the strings to a parachute canopy, having just landed
Tiny Broadwick, the first woman to jump from an airplane, handles her wind-filled canopy after a safe landing. She made 1,000 jumps between 1907 and 1922. In 1964, she was made an honorary member of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

At the height of the first space age, visions of future space travel ranged from the fantastical—the interstellar adventures of Buck Rogers—to the credulous, with NASA planning visits to both Venus and Mars before the end of the century. There was a palpable expectation that the world would see a proliferation of new technologies across the sky, and who could blame the prognosticators—after all, they’d already seen it happen once in their lifetimes.

Almost as soon as the Wright brothers cracked the code on the ancient dream of human flight, aero fever encircled the globe (well before the airplanes themselves could do so). Our new Early Flight gallery, opening next year, traces the slow evolution of the idea over the centuries and its sudden explosion in one swift decade from that first flight in 1903 to the beginning of World War I.

Champagne corks popped across France as airplanes circled the Eiffel Tower, and New Yorkers craned to see aircraft fly loops around the Statue of Liberty. Hundreds of thousands were thrilled by aerobatic displays at early airshows across Europe and the United States.

During the first years of flight, safety measures were introduced that are still in use today. In 1912, crowds in Chicago’s Grant Park watched Tiny Broadwick become the first woman to jump from an airplane. (The pilot was aviation pioneer Glenn Martin.) Tiny had gotten her start leaping from hot air balloons wearing a handmade aerial “life preserver.” In 1914, while demonstrating parachutes for the U.S. Army, Tiny’s static line became stuck. Cutting it short and pulling it manually, she executed history’s first planned free fall from an airplane, inventing the ripcord and selling the military on the new safety technology for their nascent, and hazardous, fleet of early aircraft.

The centerpiece of the new gallery, the 1909 Wright Military Flyer, is the most complete example of the world’s earliest airplanes. It was used by Wilbur Wright to teach the first three military aviators to fly.

As Mark Twain once observed, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” The first decade of aviation was one of frenetic creativity and promise. Now, as we begin a second space age with plans for Starships and new lunar landers (both in this issue), who knows what new advances will come our way? We may yet see the boom predicted in the middle of the last century by pulp magazines and on silver screens. After all, it’s happened once before.

Christopher U. Browne is the Acting Director of the National Air and Space Museum.

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