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Social History of Aviation and Spaceflight - An Overview

From the earliest times, humans have had a fascination with the heavens. Many believed that the
heavens were home to the gods. Religions related stories of airborne chariots and winged angels
that descended from the heavens to speak to humans. Flying creatures that were half human and
half beast were legendary, and birds and fantastic winged creatures pulled boats and other vehicles
through the air.

As the home for these supernatural creatures, the heavens also assumed special importance. The
arrangement of the stars, or constellations, were often seen as being linked to the activities of the
gods, and elaborate stories were developed to explain their movements across the sky.

People also looked up to the stars and planets as a calendar of the changing seasons that they used
to order their lives, when they would plant their crops, when to expect the rivers to flood, when their
animals would be fertile, and to support their religious observances. They observed the movements
of the planets, and different cultures arrived at varying theories of the place of the Earth in the
universe. This visualization of an ordered universe was the birth of astronomy, which gradually
replaced superstitious beliefs in gods and mystical forces as the originators of the movement of
heavenly bodies with an understanding of mathematics and physical laws.

The imagination that contributed to the creation of myths led very early to the desire to emulate the
gods and physically approach the heavens by means of an air or space vehicle or perhaps even by
propelling oneself through the air.

This desire manifested itself in many unsuccessful attempts. One of the earliest recorded in myth
was that of Daedalus and his son Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and perished. The ancient
Chinese reportedly tried to sail through the air by attaching themselves to kites, one of the most
significant inventions leading to flight.

Gradually, as knowledge of the Solar System and Universe grew, the connection between the
heavens and the supernatural faded, but the desire to achieve flight itself remained. Beginning with
Leonardo da Vinci, through the Wright brothers' successful flight in 1903, and into the modern era of
spaceflight, individuals took tentative steps toward flight, often with bodily injuries and sometimes
with fatal results. Nevertheless, efforts continued and once the Wright brothers made their fateful
flight, there was no turning back. Aviation soon became part of the mindset of the world; people
became what Joseph Corn has called "airminded," and the fervor with which many embraced
aviation approached a religious zeal.

The "barnstormers" of the 1910s and 1920s did much to introduce aviation to people in remote
areas. They often took people for their first flight and inspired some like Bill Boeing to enter aviation.
But it was Charles Lindbergh's epic transatlantic crossing in 1927 that captured the world's
imagination. He excited people about flight and did more than any single individual to move the
fledgling technology forward.
Unrelated, but also around the time of Lindbergh's flight, physicists from around the world interested
in traveling outside the Earth's atmosphere began to form a number of rocket societies where they
carried out significant research in rocketry, the first step toward space flight. This was the beginning
of the space industry and also introduced the public to the possibilities of space travel.

Gradually, the growth of aviation and air travel changed the lives of most people. Much like the
interstate highway system did for continents, air travel shrunk the size of the world, making it
possible for widely spaced family members to visit one another, allowing far-flung resorts to grow,
and making "face-to-face" business contacts a reality. It changed the way people viewed the world.
No longer were they limited to looking at it from the ground; now they literally could look down upon
the Earth from above. The ability to fly was part of a growing sense of connectedness with and
mastery over the world. People became citizens of the world. The enthrallment with aviation also
became apparent with the continued popularity of air shows, air races, and other demonstrations
that showcased skilled flyers. Every year millions of people have attended these thrilling and
entertaining events.

Aviation's influence steadily grew in the areas of architecture and design. The first airports were
merely airfields with viewing stands that allowed spectators to watch the early air competitions and
looked much like the stands built for watching a horse race or other sporting event. When planes
began carrying passengers, airports were designed to look like train stations to reassure the flying
public that air travel was much like the familiar train travel and nothing to fear. Later airport design
reflected the need to move growing numbers of passengers and the requirement to handle larger
and faster airplanes. In more recent years, airport design has been influenced by the need for
increased airport security and the stated desire to make air travel less stressful for passengers by
introducing large, open, well-lit spaces.

In many areas, design after the arrival of air travel featured long, lean, horizontal lines suggesting
airplane wings, and soaring upright structures and parabolic arches that directed the eye skyward.
The Art Deco style of the 1920s and 1930s had a streamlined look evocative of speed. Air motifs
were common and airplanes appeared in murals, metal work, and mosaics as well as in advertising
and household items. Automobile manufacturers especially adopted aviation design. From the late
1950s, cars sported tailfins, sharply angled hoods, and other features drawn from fighter jets. The
"space race" further affected design. Flying-saucer shapes showed up in furniture and starbursts
and rocket logos were common. Spaceflight appeared at expositions and fairs such as at the 1962
exposition in Seattle, Washington, which exhibited John Glenn's Friendship 7 capsule, a model of
the Soviet Sputnik satellite, and a ride to the top of the Space Needle. Amusement parks like Walt
Disney's also entertained visitors with Tomorrowland, Space Mountain, Spaceship Earth, and Star
Tours, an intergalactic flight to the Moon.

Literature has also reflected the allure of flight. Jules Verne's 1870 book Around the World in Eighty
Days was a romantic story about balloon travel. World War I aces Eddie Rickenbacker and Manfred
von Richthofen (the "Red Baron") wrote about their exploits as did later war heroes. Lindbergh's
books, and those of his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh were best sellers. Other well-known aviators
also wrote their stories and were the subject of biographies. Books for young people also focused on
aviation, with "a is for airplane" frequently replacing "a is for apple." Children's books as early as the
1920s featured famous aviators, war heroes during times of conflict, and later astronauts. There
have also been many young people's books describing historical events in aviation and spaceflight
and the technology and science of flight at a level understandable to young readers.

Probably the earliest literary work dealing with space travel was Historia Vera (True History) written
by the Greek Lucien of Samosata in the 2nd century. But until the 17th century, after the publication of
Nicolaus Copernicus' work describing the place of the Earth in the Solar System and Johannes
Kepler's work on planetary motion, few works dealt with space travel. The real Cyrano de Bergerac
(of the famous nose) wrote on space travel to the Moon in the mid-1600s and set the theme for later
books. More realistic space vehicles appeared with the discovery of electricity. Edgar Allen Poe used
a balloon to send his hero to the Moon. A "Moon hoax" in 1835 that described creatures from the
Moon was repeated in the press and temporarily believed as true. Jules Verne's From the Earth to
the Moon, written in 1865, almost a century before the first space flight, was uncannily prophetic
about future developments. Edward Everett Hale wrote The Brick Moon in 1899, a story about space
stations. H.G. Wells' 1898 War of the Worlds about a Martian attack became a classic, especially
after its 1938 radio broadcast threw the New York area into a panic. Although space fiction was
written for entertainment, it sometimes also stimulated future rocket pioneers. Hermann Oberth, after
reading Jules Verne's Around the Moon and realizing that Verne's method of firing astronauts to the
Moon was impossible, was motivated to look for alternative ways of getting there. For young
readers, the several series of Tom Swift books beginning in 1910 and lasting into the 1990s and the
Tom Corbett Space Cadet Adventure Stories of the 1950s (as well as related television and radio
broadcasts) appealed to children from the time of their release.

Hardly called literature, comics and pulp fiction emerged almost a century before the invention of the
airplane. Filled with futuristic ideas, these were entertainment, simply written and filled with
illustrations. Hugo Gernsback created the first all-science-fiction pulp with his Amazing Stories that
featured outlandish technologies and stories, some written by established authors such as Jules
Verne and H.G. Wells. This pulp launched the first space hero, "Buck" Rogers, who showed up in
comics, movies, on radio, and on television. Aviation stories appeared in a wave of comic books,
especially during World War II, when they offered patriotic tales of dogfights, bombing runs, and
daring rescues.

Art dealing with aviation and spaceflight has both accompanied works of literature and existed
independently of it. Woodcuts or other drawings often illustrated the earliest books and stories about
spaceflight and flying. The multi-talented Leonardo da Vinci illustrated his notebooks with sketches
of flying machines. The military's accomplished artists shared their impressions of wartime with
moving testimonials to their experiences. Militaries also commissioned, during both war and
peacetime, posters to recruit airmen and to inspire support for war efforts, often hiring established
artists such as Norman Rockwell. Civilian artists like Pablo Picasso have also testified to the horrors
of war through their art. Aviation artists, many of them also pilots, have created paintings of planes in
flight that hang in galleries, illustrate books, and decorate the walls of museums as murals. Artists
with distinctive abilities illustrate comics and children's books. Space artists, beginning in the late
1950s, have turned more to fact than fiction, depicting the planets, famous space flights, and those
who have ventured into space.
Often works of art in their own right, models of aircraft and space vehicles have appealed to
hobbyists and children alike since the 1930s. Buck Rogers' rocket ship appeared as a model as did
models of spacecraft from many space movies. Models of actual planes and spacecraft have also
become big business, and working rocket models sometime border on real missiles.

Although recreational, models are not really considered toys. Toys relating to aviation and spacecraft
exist for children of all ages, from those still in their crib to teenagers. The earliest were probably
kites, existing from ancient times. The Wright brothers were said to have been inspired by a toy
helicopter that their father brought them from a trip. Toy manufacturers have offered space helmets
and costumes for children's imaginative games, wooden and plastic airports, building block sets for
constructing space stations, and balsa planes that can entertain children for hours. Computer games
and flight simulators entertain many older "children" as well.

Aviation has been the subject of hundreds of movies and television shows. The first Oscar-winner
was the 1927 silent movie Wings. Aviation movies depicted real life as passengers in earlier movies
changed from being the rich and famous to ordinary people in later ones. Themes included war
adventures, romances, and hijacking, and many incorporated air chases or used airplanes for quick
transition scenes.

Space travel has also been common on the silver screen and to a lesser extent on television, but
presented in a more fanciful way than aviation since spaceflight is outside the realm of first-hand
experience for most. Space movies were introduced years before the first spaceflight and tended to
be completely improbable even when they did obey the laws of physics. Aliens of all sizes, shapes,
and colors abounded, and nothing seemed impossible. One movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey,
affected how people looked at space exploration and, as space historian Howard McCurdy noted,
determined what a space station "should" look like. Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. built
their plots around extraterrestrial contact. Star Trek, one of the few successful television space
shows, developed a huge cult after an uneventful beginning, becoming much more than just a
popular television show and later a movie. Its "Space, the Final Frontier" and "Beam me up, Scotty"
have entered our vocabulary, the first Space Shuttle Orbiter Enterprise was named after the show's
Starship Enterprise,"Trekkie" conventions have become big business, and a large series of Star Trek
comic books have replaced the aviation stories found in earlier comics.

Music has also reflected its share of flight, aviation, and space themes. Almost everyone responds to
a rousing military march, and the U.S. Air Force's "Off we go into the wild blue yonder"is no
exception. But the variety of music relating to flight, aviation, and space has been much broader than
military music. This music has spanned the range of classical works like the "Flight of the
Bumblebee," the many songs written to honor Charles Lindbergh and the aviators of the world wars,
songs about ballooning, and soundtracks to accompany aviation and space movies.

A special place exists in social history for unidentified flying objects and extraterrestrials. The idea of
an invasion from outer space is one that persists, no matter what the evidence to the contrary. Both
feared and anticipated, people on Earth (supposedly called "earthlings" by those from out-of-this
world) were quick to believe the realistic "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast in 1938. In 1947,
reports of "flying saucers" made headlines, and the U.S. Air Force responded by setting up an office
to study the rumors. In 1952, Washington, D.C., was the target of unexplained space vehicles. The
area around Roswell, New Mexico, has seemed to attract sightings of mysterious phenomena.
Others instances have also made the pages of the National Enquirer and other tabloids and
occasionally the mainstream press. Television has broadcast the "X-Files" and Hollywood has
produced Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Men In Black. An ongoing project called SETI, the
Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, continues to seek signals from outer space, using the world's
largest radio telescope. But still, the evidence remains: we seem to be alone.

In the last one hundred years, and to a lesser extent for thousands of years, both aviation and
spaceflight have played an important part in social history. Most would agree that this role has
largely been positive. Aviation has made the world smaller and brought people closer together. It has
provided an avenue for those with special skills and talents in countless areas to shine and to
express themselves. It has improved the lives of many people. Spaceflight, too, had a positive
impact on life in the 20th century. It has opened up the vastness of the Universe and if not exactly
able yet to explain how life began, has provided us with substantial clues. It has, to a great extent,
achieved what writers could only imagine a hundred years ago.

But not everything associated with aviation and spaceflight has been heartening. While making the
world smaller, aviation has also made warfare easier, allowing adversaries to kill one another without
ever seeing the faces of their victims. Some would argue too that the large costs associated with
spaceflight and space travel have taken limited resources away from those on Earth with dire needs.

But for good or otherwise, our world would certainly be different if two brothers on a windy hill in
North Carolina had not made their short flight into the air on a cold day in 1903. And one can
believe, with some certainty that, because of the accomplishments of space-minded people, humans
will some day journey to other worlds.

-Judy Rumerman