Air University Review, May-June 1986

Walking on Wings: Caution and 
Courage for Manned Space Flight

Colonel Timothy E. Kline, USAF


"Safety second is my motto."

Ormer Locklear

Daredeviltry may be one man's recklessness or another man's scientific pioneering. Points of view make all the difference. In 1919 and 1920, a daring former lieutenant galvanized the Hollywood film industry with amazing aerial feats. While the cameras whirred, Lieutenant Ormer Locklear became the first individual to transfer from one aircraft to another in midair.1 He was feted at parties with a celebrity introduction as having more "nerve than anyone who ever lived," and this description continued even after he was killed in a 1920 air crash near the locus of his legendary accomplishment.2 Locklear ignited a barnstorming fever that would electrify a tight fraternity of flyers for a decade.3

How did Locklear sustain such a gust of publicity, sweeping along an enraptured national audience? Why was his timing so perfect? Probably because, seventeen years and a major war after the Wright brothers, the American people had finally digested the idea of manned flight. Having accepted the routinization of a scientific process, Americans were yearning for adventure but with considerably less risk. Locklear's demonstrations both thrilled movie buffs and encouraged professionals who were then putting future airliners on the drawing board. Locklear said that he performed "to do things that people feel can't be done."4 Charles A. Lindbergh probably couched that salient idea best:

Why does one want to walk wings? Why force one's body from a plane just to make a parachute jump? Why should man want to fly at all? People often ask these questions. But what civilization was not founded on adventure, and how long could one exist without it? But what justifies the risk of life? Some answer the attainment of knowledge. Some say wealth, or power, is sufficient cause. I believe the risks I take are justified by the sheer love of the life I lead.5

Locklears and Lindberghs are the lineal antecedents of astronauts who launched our space age. That still-budding space age teeters precariously today on the pros and cons of continuing the pace of manned space flights. Arguments against are impressive; the arguments for are compelling. Regardless, nothing should obstruct this civilization's greatest scientific adventure—extraorbital space flight by modern-day "wing-walkers."

The fascination that greeted early suborbital and multiorbital manned space missions suffered a dramatic decline following the final Apollo sortie. Only recently, with the renewed drama of the space shuttle series, has a tide of enthusiasm among the general public burgeoned sufficiently to support the most tentative proposals for future flights of exploration. Why the lull of keenness in the hiatus between Apollo and Columbia? Clearly, a space program without high human drama is lackluster and flat despite the vast potentialities of machines and the Voyager-demonstrated powers of computer assistance. The larger, tax-paying public cannot quite focus on arrays of silicon chips or banks of batteries. For the average man on the street, reality wears a human face.

Space itself is too barren, cold, and sterile. Like any other vast stretch of sameness, including the Sahara, the Gobi, Antarctica, and even oceans, outer space is not comprehensible without a yardstick. For this age, the yardstick remains the only valid and truly knowable measure—a mature human body. Since nothing can be fully perceived beyond the two-meter corporeal presence we know best, we humans consistently dwell on dimensions inhabitable by and delineable by living persons. In this regard, enthusiasms will always follow footsteps. The moonwalk of Neil Armstrong suggests far more than his words superficially confess. Steps are what our lives are about; progressive human steps must mark our journeys into space. Anything less will produce only the kind of gloomy, cost-cutting despair that settled in after the first race to the moon had been won. Hopefully NASA has absorbed at least that overriding lesson—people like to watch adventurers daring to brave hostile environments. Any machine's triumph is likely to be viewed with suspicion and distrust. Who really ever cared how many and how marvelous were Ma Bell's manifold circuitries? Machines are designed to be slaves; men are destined for mastery.

In this sense, the space environment promises profound boons for man's travels and poses severe challenges to his forays as well. Certainly the clarity of the medium and even the relatively sanitary nature of a near-vacuum make it an attractive ocean on which scant frictions, few obstacles, and rather appreciable accelerations can be savored. On the other hand, the vacuous reaches hold no solace, offer no safe harbors, and contribute no material resources that might benefit a broken vessel or sustain a life form totally dependent on liquids, solids, and gases wholly missing from the medium of transmission. For men to venture out on such a sea is the major adventure of our time. It would not be wrong to label such explorers as reckless except that the crew selection process, scientific preparation, and sheer expenses mitigate any hasty judgment. What, really, do these high-cost risk-takers hope to achieve? Is their goal so different from that of the daredevils of our century's second and third decades? Perhaps not.

Octave Chanute credited F. H. Wenham's observations of birds, in the context of demonstrating known laws of flight, with the real beginning of a search for manned flight. In 1866, Wenham presented a paper to the Aeronautic Society of Great Britain that "breathed into it a spirit which has continued to this day."6

Attractive thought processes merging the flight characteristics of birds with a burst of good, solid reason produced manned flight. One medium—air—led to another—space—as more recent scientific communities wrestled with known limitations and reached for emerging technologies to overarch perplexing barriers. No previous civilization has ever moved so quickly. Professor Eugene M. Emme celebrated this achievement in the first sentences of his impressive survey The Impact of Air Power:

From the biplane of the Wright brothers to the baby moon called "Sputnik" has been but a few swift decades. Rarely in the story of mankind has a technical innovation altered human affairs with greater rapidity or with wider significance than has the science of flight.7

Professor Emme continued his preface with a well-reasoned elaboration, claiming that "air power" and "space power" form a kind of continuum of phenomena: "Air space and outer space will always remain a single, indivisible medium."8 Thus, the surge of interest in recent shuttle missions underlines now what he boldly proclaimed more than two decades ago—that the air age would lead directly to the space age with hardly a pause. A craft that can depart earth's surface by rocket and return on its own wings strikes the imagination exactly where it has always been happily vulnerable—where a reality has long been conceivable yet is only just now achievable.

What is man to do in space? In a word: discovery. There is an old proverb that puts it this way: "It is God's business to hide a matter; it is the king's business to find it out."9 The same kind of observations that in 1866 led Wenham from birds in flight to the conceptualization of manned flight are being fashioned today. That electrical power is the "lifeblood of a space vehicle"10 may seem a superficially trite fact yet is far deeper in promise than a hurried observer might note. The absolute dependence of space travelers on vehicular electric power is elementary. Nonetheless, electricity itself involves some form of travel through a less than benign medium at speeds approachable to (if just short of) that which is thought to be a primary barrier to stellar exploration.

But are there any permanent barriers? Before we admit that any exist, we had better look again. The record of man's recent achievements speaks rather clearly to an opposite conclusion. Means are now being presented to our hands by emergent technologies that boggle the mind. Alas, if only the mind could travel like electricity while the body rested. Without getting metaphysical, a curious kind of explosive fury of knowledge seems about to break in upon us. Yet if we are to travel in tubes and wings, two constants still plague us—time and our bodies.

If time could be folded like a fan, we could bridge the vast distances of space with the technology on hand and, more important, with the bodies that hold us to such brief spans of experience, in relative terms. On the other hand, if our bodies could be superseded or at least the dying process delayed, we could deal better with the inability to compress time. The answer to neither of these challenges seems close. How then to proceed? As always, by expecting the unexpected, probing the dark corners of our understanding, and pressing toward the objects of our activity, the stellar arrays themselves.

Perhaps the computer will help us in the search for answers of genius. The U.S. Air Force forecast for the year 2003 proclaims: "The present technological surge is led by the computer."11

Secretary of the Air Force Verne Orr and Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles A. Gabriel asserted in the Posture of the Air Force and Budget Estimates for Fiscal Year 1984 that just as in the 1920s, "when we were just learning about the possible uses of air power, we are today on the threshold of exploring uses of space."12 The "rapid growth of space technology " has been remarkable.13 Air Force leaders are quick to point out a primary requirement to maintain "an environment that will permit exploitation of new technologies" but are not sure whether they want men or robots aloft.14

For most military applications, which are designed to assist surface warfare, a good case can be made for robotics. Harry I. Davis outlined the traditional arguments in the Report of the USAF Scientific Advisory Board Ad Hoc Committee on the Potential Utility of a Manned Space Station (June 1983): more precision, more endurance, and, most important, no life support system needed.15

Unfortunately, the case for man in deeper space is still mired in debate. The NASA programs Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab all have demonstrated in highly publicized ways how men were able to "save" space missions. But in an era of severe budgetary constraints, it is too easy to line human crews out of follow-on/ further-on missions. Should the various bureaucracies succumb to the barrage of cost-cutting rationale, they will do so at the risk of the only sure way to generate and sustain the massive fundings necessary to complete the larger adventure—the matchless spectacle of living beings at work in space.

There is simply no substitute for a planned sequence of manned space missions. The solar system is the latest schoolyard. For the interim, while evolving technology is busily unwrapping universal secrets, this star's planets are sufficient platforms for training and travel. But the mastery of the planetary realm cannot continue apace, devoid of mankind, without gradually becoming sorely repetitious. Floating cameras and robotic devices will not for long arrest the interest of earthlings craving high thrills among the orbits, nor will they move congressional committees far in loosening budget restraints. Let no one be deceived. Sacrificial giving can be motivated only by strong enthusiasms springing from the deep wellspring of shared human hopes and joys. The daredevils of the twenties tapped that source of kindred expectation and secured the safest, most responsive mass transit system the world has known.

When the air age translated into the space age, there was no public complaint or congressional carping. Clearly derived benefits of aviation had been transferred rapidly to the public airways, and that process was well remembered. Transportation for the masses had gotten so noticeably better by the early sixties that rocketry and space seemed to offer equally hopeful promise for the future. When Commander Alan B. Shepard lifted off Launch Pad 5 on 5 May 1961, becoming America's first man in space, millions of humble Americans positively identified with the daring and swiftness involved. They followed that particular mission with envy and hope. Subsequent flights aimed at the moon, and public excitement permitted the carrying on of a much wider and more sober series of unmanned space exploration flights. Recently, Air Force officers from the Eastern Space and Missile Center's 6555th Aerospace Test Group reenacted that special "Freedom 7" Flight on 5 May 1984 by launching a miniature Mercury-Redstone 3 to commemorate Shepard's flight. 16 It was a nice gesture. But it was a memorial of sorts. The future of manned space exploration today continues in doubt.

No appeal on the merits of scientific investigation will sustain the kind of enthusiasm wanted for funding space research. Too many pressing, yet mundane afflictions warrant general expenditures that compete for increasingly scarce fiscal resources. Only a human in space can capture the imagination. The requirement is clear. Without wing-walkers, the call of space will go unanswered, and the high vaulted halls of space will remain great mysterious voids, untracked, uncharted, and unknown.


1. Art Ronnie, Locklear: The Man Who Walked on Wings (South Brunswick and New York: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1973), p. 13.

2. Ibid, p. 11.

3. Ibid., p. 8. Lieutenant General Jimmie Doolittle wrote: "In those days, the flying fraternity was small; and all of the old gang knew or knew of Lock and respected him as a craftsman."

4. Ibid.. p. 8.

5. Charles A. Lindbergh, The Spirit of St. Louis (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953), p. 269.

6. W. J. Jackman, Thomas H. Russell, Octave Chanute, Flying Machines (Chicago: Charles C. Thompson Company, 1910), pp. 7-8.

7. Eugene M. Emme, The Impact of Air Power (Princeton, New Jersey: D. Van Nostrand Company. 1959), p. v.

8. Ibid., p. vi.

9. Proverbs 25:2.

10. U.S. Air Force, Space Handbook (Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Air University, August 1977), p. 4-1.

11. U.S. Air Force, Destination 2003, A Global Assessment (Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio: Air Force Logistics Command, 1983), p. xv.

12. Space: The Fourth Military Arena (Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Air Command and Staff College, May 1984), p. 6.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid., p. 9.

15. Ibid., p. 88.

16. Feature story in Newsreview, 15 June 1984.


Colonel Timothy E. Kline (USAFA; M.A., Louisiana State University) is Chief, Doctrine and Concepts Division, Hq USAF. He was previously assigned to the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing (F-4); was a chief of the Operations Branch and Fighter Weapons Tactics at Hurlburt Field, Florida; and served as a faculty member at the USAF Academy and Air Command and Staff College. Colonel Kline is a Distinguished Graduate of Air Command and Staff College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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