“To Infinity — and Beyond!” or has The Claw got ahold of us?

Posted on 11 March 2010

Another installment in my “Historical Perspective” series. With the benefit of hindsight, I think the original title to the article is kinda dopey but, for the sake of being true to re-running the posts as they originally existed, I’ve left it intact. This post originally ran on September 17th, 2002.

I’m perusing this Web site on Russian weapons of World War II and it got me thinking. Maybe it was just me, but the 1920s and 30s seemed to be a glorious heyday for advances in technology — especially the aircraft and tank industries. Granted, the world was edging closer and closer to meltdown, but look at all of the great and innovative stuff that emerged. The GeeBee racers. The Christie tank. The Jet engine (be it the Whittle or the von Ohain versions). Jack Northrop’s ventures into flying wing technology. You name it, a lot of the greatest thinking of the 20th century seems to have been done prior to the Second World War and it just took those 6 horrible years to bring it all together.

What really got me thinking was the price of all of these technologies. If you look at the Northrop flying wings or the GeeBee racers (as an example) they were (for the most part) privately funded. These guys (and gals) were going out there and putting everything on the line to try out new things. Look at Robert Goddard — if it weren’t for him and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky there wouldn’t have ever been a space race, let alone a man on the moon! But these people didn’t have millions of dollars of grant or research money from the government. They didn’t have any real kind of corporate sponsorship — they did it on their own.

So why do governments spend billions on weapons research and development for things that will be obsolete by the time that they reach production? I understand that things are more intricate and thus more expensive now, but doesn’t that also mean that there is that much more to go wrong? There is that much more that has to be maintained? Take an old Soviet T-34 or a US Sherman tank as examples — they didn’t beat the German tanks because they had better guns or thicker armor. They were produced in such vast quantities that they overran the Germans. They were so easy to maintain that they could keep running no matter what. Take the German Tiger or Panther tanks — amazing pieces of machinery but they were just left by the side of the road when they broke down because they couldn’t be fixed easily.

I like simplicity. Simplicity is nice. Why go out and make things more difficult than they need to be? What good is a stealth fighter if it can only take off from a pristine runway? Put one or two craters in that runway and you’ve got a useless hunk of billion dollar gadgetry. Take the precious fuel away from an Abrams tank — and they aren’t too fuel efficient, either — and it’s not going far (but destroying an enemy’s supply lines has always been a problem). Have we stopped really innovating because things just take way to long to produce? Look at what Kelly Johnson’s Skunk Works produced in the short amount of time that they seem to have been given for each project: the SR-71, the F-104, the U-2, and the P-80 (among others). Granted, these were government projects and some of them were very pricey and sophisticated, but they are amazing pieces of machinery and technology that pushed the limits.

But now they seem to be an exception — how old is the SR-71? What happened to the Delta Clipper? Where is the National Aerospace Plane (NASP)? It seems like there are only a handful of real innovators out there nowadays. Maybe we need something else to get us going…maybe these amateur ventures into space will spark our imaginations again. If they do, when will we start to see the fruit of these labours? 2020? 2030? Then in 2102 will somebody be “writing” a similar diatribe about the 2020s and 30s? Who knows.

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