During this discussion, Gingrich came out against NASA’s progress during Obama’s time in office. He made bold claims about cost effectiveness, comparing the success of SpaceX’s new Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule against the huge costs of NASA programs.
Gingrich is known for using historical allegories to attempt to make his points. When discussing NASA, and commercial development against public development, he chose to use the Wright Brothers as his example. The Wright Brothers, for those who attended Texas or Louisiana schools, were the first people to fly a powered aircraft capable of carrying a person. They were in a close race against US Government sponsored Samuel Langley, who worked for the Smithsonian for a great deal of time. Langley spent close to $70,000 studying, designing and developing the technologies needed for flight. The Wright brothers by comparison spent around $1,000. Seems like a slam dunk for Gingrich’s argument you would think, yes?
Not at all. What Gingrich forgot in his historical reference was that the Wright Brothers did not work in a vacuüm. In 1899, Wilbur Wright wrote to the Smithsonian asking for every piece of material possible on the theories and execution of flight. Samuel Langley had at that point spent several years developing the knowledge base on flight for the Smithsonian, including scale models, wind tunnel testing, even a flying unmanned example vehicle. The Smithsonian promptly sent copies of all of this, gathered and researched during Langley’s $70,000 in research, to the Wright Brothers.
The two brothers then took that information, and improved upon it. They had saved, some estimate, a decade of work. But even then, they might not have been the first men to fly if it were not for a mishap. Samuel Langley’s prototype airplane, which he called the Aerodrome, was tested in the summer of 1903. The prototype snagged itself on the launching platform (a modified houseboat) so was unable to launch on the first attempt. On the second, it became snagged again, causing severe damage, as seen here:
By the time Langley had repaired the Aerodrome, the Wrights had performed their flight successfully. Basing their work on Langley’s, the Wrights had developed improvements to the design, the stacked wings, the tip warping for steering, the counter-rotating propellers, for examples. Some claim that the Aerodrome was an unflyable mess, but that was disproven years later, when, in trying to have the Wright patents overturned, Glenn Curtis rebuilt the Aerodrone, and flew it successfully in 1914:
So, despite Gingrich’s claims that Langley wasted tens of thousands of US Taxpayer dollars on a flying machine that did not work, and that the Wright brothers flew the first airplane without any government support, the truth is that the Wrights benefited from government research, and that the Aerodrome worked.
Similarly, SpaceX did not work in a vacuüm. They benefit from billions in NASA research, handed to them. Their engine, the Merlin, is derived from two NASA programs, the FastRac and the Low Cost Pintle Engine. Their tank technology and know how came from dozens of other programs. Even the control hardware has its roots in a DARPA program. The Dragon capsule uses a heat shield developed by NASA and will be sporting a life support system developed under a NASA program, and that’s just for starters.
Even Elon Musk, the mastermind behind SpaceX refuses to state that he did it alone, instead stating simply, “We are only here because we stand on the shoulders of giants.”