Human spaceflight is an inherently progressive activity – not so much in its practical consequences but in the way it changes our species’s frame of reference.
Some stories are so well known in outline that we don’t really know them at all. The headline news about the Wright brothers’ invention of powered flight is so familiar that it’s easy to think we know all about it. David McCullough’s excellent biography The Wright Brothers brings the story back to life with facts that the non-specialist either doesn’t know or has blotted out with a misplaced broad brush. Yeah yeah, we get it: the brothers were provincial tinkerers who first flew their invention at Kitty Hawk – then became world-famous. It turns out though that there is a lot of devil in the details.
The tinkering, for instance. The Wrights were pioneers in the cycling business who ran a bicycle shop in Dayton Ohio. Wilbur was born in 1867 and Orville in 1871. They were an unusually close pair who all their lives lived together, worked together, ate together and shared a joint bank account. (McCullough is too respectful of their boundaries to say so, but it seems likely that they were both lifelong virgins.)
One of the only things they didn’t do together was fly: that would have been too much of a risk to the irreplaceable knowledge they’d jointly accumulated. Their father Milton was a bishop in the United Brethren Church who accepted his sons’ lack of faith with equanimity and was going on suffragettes’ marches with his only daughter Katherine in his eighties.
Katherine – a teacher – was the only family member to go to university and the only sibling to have consummated a relationship – marrying at the age of 52.