The Rocky Road to Discovery

The breakthroughs we remember, of course, are the grand successes: Apollo 11 landing on the moon; the Concorde making supersonic flight available to commercial travelers; Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne capturing the Ansari X prize for achieving "space" altitude twice in two weeks in a privately-funded spaceship.

But as the $424-million failure of the Orbital Sciences Corp's Taurus XL rocket last Friday underscored, the road to discovery and technology advancement is a rocky one, littered with failures, dead ends and ideas ahead of either their time or the technology of the day.

Take, for example, the Deltoid Pumpkin Seed.

Forty years ago (March 7, 1971), a prototype of a new class of aircraft, so odd-shaped that John McPhee of The New Yorker dubbed it the "Deltoid Pumpkin Seed" (see image below) completed its one and only successful test flight at the FAA Test Center in New Jersey. The craft was an early attempt at a hybrid airship that would rely on both an aerodynamic shape and internal helium to lift heavy cargo loads at low cost, and into remote areas where large cargo planes could not land.


The Aereon 26, as the craft was officially called, was actually the second attempt at such a craft to take flight. A very primitive version of a dynamic airship was built and flight tested during the Civil War by Solomon Andrews -- the same inventor who gave us the combination lock. Not surprisingly, Andrews' design was highly impractical -- as many first attempts are.

A century later, the Aereon Corporation took Andrews' original three-hulled design and idea and revamped it with the aid of 1960s computer-aided-design (CAD) tools. The shape deemed "optimal" by the computer for a cargo hybrid airship was a puffy, deltoid design that evolved, through several unsuccessful versions and several years of model and wind tunnel tests, into the Aereon 26.

Unfortunately, for anyone who loves weird and wonderful flying machine ideas, the Aereon 26 was still ahead of its time, and that first test flight turned out to be a kind of one-hit wonder. Funding for further development or testing of the pumpkin seed never materialized, and the prototype now sits forlorn and largely forgotten in a New Jersey hangar, hoping for some philanthropic museum to rescue it from decay. The company still exists, but with a staff of one -- William Miller, the president who oversaw the Aereon 26's development and who, 40 years later, is still trying to find a home for the prototype and funding for related projects.

What makes the Aereon story particularly interesting, however, is that while the Aereon 26 may have fizzled, the idea of a hybrid airship is once again in vogue (a development I wrote about in an Atlantic article last year). And this time, the idea, the need and the technology may be aligned well enough to generate success. Five years ago, Lockheed-Martin successfully test-flew a prototype of a tri-hulled, aerodynamic airship called the P-791. And last year, the Army awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman for a hybrid airship for reconnaissance work in Afghanistan. The Long-Endurance, Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV), as the vehicle is called, is expected to make its first flight this coming summer.

If successful, the LEMV will bring not only a new capability (long-endurance surveillance) to the military, but a new class of aircraft as well. And it could eventually lead to a successful cargo version of a hybrid airship -- which will be the one everyone remembers, of course.

And yet ... just as shadow is inextricably linked to light, the failures, glitches and concerted efforts ahead of time or technology are an integral part of any eventual technological discovery or advance. Yes, we successfully landed on the moon. But a whole lot of rockets and concepts proved themselves wrong before we developed enough knowledge and technology to get it right. And even then, sometimes ... like last Friday ... we still fall short. (Which is, or should be, a cautionary reminder to advocates of commercial space tourism.) And sometimes, as in the case of the Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, a good idea just has to wait a few years, or a few decades, for technology to catch up enough to bring success within its reach.