Even our idols have idols. Einstein was a superfan of Galileo. Steve Jobs revered Polaroid inventor Edwin Land. And Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, had deep respect for Orville and Wilbur Wright, the inventors of the first successful airplane. That respect was so deep, in fact, that he brought a piece of their greatest achievement with him for his own greatest achievement.
Try, Try Again
Everyone knows the story of the Wright brothers’ historic flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903. What you might not know is just how long the brothers had been trying — and failing — to create a flying machine. In an essay they wrote for The Century Magazine in 1908, they recalled becoming enamored with flight as young boys when their father brought them a helicopter-style toy, which he tossed into the air. “Instead of falling to the floor, as we expected, it flew across the room till it struck the ceiling, where it fluttered awhile, and finally sank to the floor … A toy so delicate lasted only a short time in the hands of small boys, but its memory was abiding.”
By the time they began their historic experiments at Kitty Hawk decades later, they had read countless books and manuals, created countless models, and studied the designs of countless failed flying machines created by their predecessors. Their first machine proved too heavy with a person on board, so they flew it like a kite. With several revisions, they were able to pilot the thing, but they had to coast downhill to get any lift. Eventually, they decided that many of the scientific works they were referencing for their designs were “little better than guess-work.”
With their own calculations, they were finally able to create a powered flyer that remained steady in the wind, and on December 17, 1903, in Kill Devil Hills on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the Wright brothers made history. It was the first time a machine carried a person into the air by its own power and landed in one piece. That first flight lasted all of 12 seconds, but it changed the world forever.
Inspiration Takes Flight
There are plenty of parallels between the first crewed flight and the first crewed spaceflight. The Apollo program, the project to land the first men on the moon, had its own share of setbacks. The Apollo 1 mission came to a disastrous end when a fire swept through the command module during a launch rehearsal test, killing all three astronauts aboard. As a result, Apollo 2 and 3 were canceled. Apollo 4, 5, and 6 all flew without a crew. NASA’s first successful crewed spaceflight mission wasn’t until Apollo 7, and it wasn’t until Apollo 11 that we finally landed a man on the moon.
Aboard that Apollo 11 mission were astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins. All three had an affinity for aviation, having been military pilots, but it was Armstrong who had the idea to bring along a piece of the Wright brothers’ historic flyer. Under a special arrangement with the U.S. Air Force Museum, he brought a piece of wood from the airplane’s left propeller and a piece of muslin fabric from its upper left wing. He kept them in his personal preference kit (PPK), likely alongside an olive-branch pin each astronaut brought for his wife and various other mementos — though the wood and cloth stood out in Armstrong’s mind. “He is most clear about, and most proud of, the pieces of the historic Wright Flyer that he took to the Moon,” James R. Hansen wrote in “First Man,” his authorized Armstrong biography.
Today, you can pay homage to the Wright brothers’ first flight at the Wright Brothers National Memorial on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It’s just a few miles from Kitty Hawk in Kill Devil Hills, where Orville and Wilbur made those first small steps for man — and inspired one giant leap for mankind.