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7 flights of fancy that fizzled

The 21st century was supposed to bring us flying cars, routine space travel, moon colonies and much, much more. What happened?
Automobiles that fly have been an old standby for magazines such as Popular Mechanics, which published its first "flying car" story in 1906. This is the cover from July 1957. © Image Copyright The Hearst Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
Automobiles that fly have been an old standby for magazines such as Popular Mechanics, which published its first "flying car" story in 1906. This is the cover from July 1957. © Image Copyright The Hearst Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

The Wright brothers did the seemingly impossible in 1903, and 50 years later, the era of flying cars, supersonic commerce and interplanetary travel seemed just around the corner. But in the 50 years that followed, those dreams receded. Realizing them, it became clear, was costlier, riskier and just plain harder than expected. Are those dreams gone for good?

Some of aviation's fondest fantasies have been technically possible for decades. Indeed, contraptions such as flying cars and supersonic passenger jets actually were sold, and flew just fine. But the realities of mass-market flight eventually turned them into museum pieces and air-show curiosities.

We shouldn’t feel too disappointed: That there were some fizzles on aviation’s fringe could be seen as a testament to just how well the Wright Brothers and their heirs shaped the aviation mainstream. Today, the economics, convenience and safety of traditional air travel are hard to beat.

While that success may seem to leave little room for radical innovation, there are still visionaries out there trying to keep the dreams of an earlier generation alive:

1. Flying cars:
“The flying car is one variation on a longstanding dream that the airplane would become as common a form of transportation as the automobile,” says Janet Daly Bednarek, an aviation historian at the University of Dayton.

In the 1920s, it was Henry Ford who promoted the idea of an affordable air “flivver.” In the ’30s, Eugene Vidal, head of FDR’s Bureau of Air Commerce (and father of writer Gore Vidal), promoted the development of a $700 airplane. In the ’40s and ’50s, Moulton Taylor actually produced the Aerocar. And for the past 40 years, engineer Paul Moller has been working on a “volantor” called the Skycar.

“It’s a very difficult field to raise money for,” he admits.

As a first step, he hopes to sell his patented engine design for more pedestrian applications. “Our company has been as much an engine company as it has been an aircraft company.”

The Skycar would first sell for just under $1 million, eventually descending to about the same cost as a luxury automobile.

But hardware is just one piece of the Skycar puzzle. You also need a “virtual highway in the sky,” a network of aerial routes through which Skycars can be guided electronically.

“If you don’t have a virtual highway, you really don’t have the means” to enable everyone to fly, Moller says.

As long as the human element is involved, Bednarek’s not willing to bet on seeing a flying car in every garage. “The fact is that it’s a lot harder to fly than it is to drive,” she says.

A more realistic scenario, she says, would play off a NASA-promoted concept called the Small Aircraft Transportation System, which aims to shift air traffic away from congested large airports to underused small airports. The SATS concept goes hand in hand with a new generation of higher-tech, lower-cost small airplanes such as the Cirrus and Eclipse lines. The idea was popularized by author James Fallows in his 2001 book “Free Flight.”

“Some of the flying would be done by professionals — an ‘air taxi’ kind of thing,” says Bednarek. “But the ultimate goal would be to have more people do their 500- to 1,000-mile commuting between these secondary and tertiary airports in their own airplanes.”

2. Personal jetpacks:
If flying cars seem fanciful, that goes double for the kind of jetpack James Bond used in “Thunderball” to blast away from the bad guys. The U.S. Army and Bell Aerospace developed a rocket belt for military applications in the 1960s, but the 20-second maximum flight time was too limited for practical use.

The Bell Rocket Belt did see action on the entertainment front — not only with Agent 007, but also with Kolonel Keds, an ad mascot for the sneaker company. “I remember going out to the parking lot of a shopping mall to watch Kolonel Keds do his thing,” Bednarek recalls.

Since then, the rocket belt has been upgraded for use in stadium stunts, and the technology behind it even sparked a real-life crime story in the 1990s.

A variant on the jetpack concept is the strap-on hovercraft, whose best-known incarnation is the SoloTrek. A prototype of the “backpack aircraft” showed up in the movie “Agent Cody Banks.” The company says it’s continuing research on the SoloTrek — and is soliciting licensing opportunities as well. Is this one James Bond gadget that will never see the light of day? Never say never again.

3. Passenger airships:
In the early days of aviation, it was thought that dirigibles rather than airplanes would ply the skies just as ocean liners sailed the seas. To this day, Germany’s Hindenburg zeppelin ranks as the largest aircraft ever built, at 803.8 feet (245 meters) in length. But oh, the humanity! Airships proved to be unsafe and unreliable: A small spark could set the mighty zeppelin ablaze, as the 1937 Hindenburg disaster illustrated.

Curiously enough, airships are making a comeback, in Germany as well as the United States, Bednarek says. And she’s not just talking about the Goodyear blimp.

“They’ve got them flying sightseeing tours there, and the U.S. Navy is looking into them for unmanned flights, off the coast,” she says. “There’s a lot of romance associated with blimps and dirigibles, and now ... it’s a little more feasible. You won’t have another Hindenburg. But they still are very subject to the weather: You can’t fly in high winds or around thunderstorms.”

4. Supersonic commercial travel:
It’s ironic that the airplane’s centennial year was also the final year for the only commercial supersonic transport, the Concorde.

“One of the mantras of flight has always been ‘higher, farther, faster,’ and here in the centennial year we will not be flying higher and faster across the Atlantic,” Bednarek said. “And whether or not there will be a replacement is going to be up in the air.”

In the face of a global economic downdraft, “cheaper” became more important than “faster,” at least for commercial flight. Among the factors working against the Concorde were environmental factors ranging from poor fuel efficiency to sonic booms (which had kept the Concorde from going supersonic over the United States).

More evidence for the less-than-super status of commercial supersonic flight could be seen in the way the Boeing Co. changed the focus for its next-generation plane from the fast-flying Sonic Cruiser to the super-efficient 7E7.

Supersonic flight is still booming in the military market, Bednarek notes: In fact, the Pentagon is interested in developing a hypersonic drone that could fly several times the speed of sound. NASA is involved with the Air Force in a similar program called Hyper-X. The Pentagon and NASA also are working with commercial aircraft companies on boom suppression technologies that could open the way for a new wave of supersonic business jets.

5. Space tourism:
The dream of space travel for the masses — at least the well-heeled masses — goes back to the beginnings of the space age itself. Who can forget the sight of a Pan Am space shuttle heading to an international space station in the movie “2001,” and who would have thought that the space station would be a reality in 2001 while Pan Am would be history?

2001, in fact, marked the first time that a passenger paying his own way took a trip into space, when Dennis Tito filled the third seat in a Soyuz space capsule bound for the space station. The Russians could fly up at least one more passenger in 2004 or 2005, assuming the U.S. space shuttles are flying again by that time. But NBC News space analyst James Oberg, who once served as a consultant for a commercial spaceflight project, says space station tourism could be a mere flash in the pan.

“It’s a temporary artifact of space station staffing and is likely to evaporate in the next five years,” he says. “That tourist seat is not a long-term avenue to commercial flight, because once the crew size goes to six, anybody going up on the Russian Soyuz will be a professional.”

Those professionals will be researcher-astronauts, with fares paid by the world’s space agencies. “You’re going to have an unlimited supply of European and Japanese passengers on these flights,” Oberg says.

Commercial companies may be able to offer suborbital joyrides to the edge of space, 60 miles up or so, but Oberg says China’s experience illustrates just how costly a full-fledged orbital space program has to be.

“The commercializers argue with some justification that spaceflight is expensive because government does it,” he says. “But China didn’t go out to make space travel expensive. They made it as cheap as they could, and they still had to spend $2 billion — and that’s kind of sobering.”

6. Space colonies:
When the Apollo missions landed on lunar soil, it was natural to think that permanent settlements on the moon — and even Mars — would surely follow.

And every once in a while, someone comes up with a concept for a lunar hotel or a Red Planet habitat, to satisfy a commercial yen or fulfill a cosmic “manifest destiny.”

Oberg maintains that only the U.S. government would have the wherewithal to push for a permanent presence beyond low Earth orbit, just as it was the government that supported ventures ranging from the Lewis and Clark expedition to the interstate highway system.

“When it comes to a moonbase or an asteroid visit, these are the sorts of things that the U.S. government has traditionally alone had the money to undertake,” he says.

But in the post-Cbbolumbia era, the conquest of new worlds seems further away than ever.

7. Propulsion breakthroughs:
It’d be a lot easier to get to Mars and beyond if spaceships had warp drives or wormhole-openers or any of the other exotic propulsion technologies that date back to the science fiction of the 1960s.

Of course, there are experimental alternatives to plain old rockets: the Cosmos 1 solar sail, for example, or the ion drive used by NASA’s Deep Space 1 and the European Space Agency’s SMART-1 probe. But how about totally revolutionary physics — the kind of thing we see in “Star Wars” or “Star Trek”?

Despite everything you might have read about antigravity research and quantum teleportation, we’re not anywhere near there yet, says Marc Millis, a NASA researcher who set up the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project.

“There is no leading approach in the wings where we can lie in wait of quick discovery,” Millis says.

He stresses that the future of propulsion lies in “smaller baby steps.”

“There are still some unverified claims that are in the peer-reviewed literature, like Woodward’s transient inertia effect that, if found to be genuine, would be quite provocative,” he says. “You’ve got the phenomenon of quantum vacuum energy and the Casimir effect. Even if these things turn out not to be practical for application, they are still interesting tools with which we can deeper explore physics.”

Every year seems to bring new insights into the weird realms of quantum physics and dark cosmology — insights that fuel the hopes of Millis and others who hope that one day, today’s small steps will add up to tomorrow’s giant leap.

“When it comes to the faster-than-light issue, there is definitely physics that would indicate that it’s impossible, as well as physics to indicate there might be loopholes around that,” Millis says. “But when it comes to the ‘manipulating gravity’ situation, so long as you stick to conservation of momentum and conservation of energy, there is nothing to say it’s impossible. That one, there’s more hope for, even though we’re still at a very early stage.”