When Orville and Wilbur Wright wandered out onto the dunes of Kill Devil Hills to make their first powered flight, there were no crowds of well wishers cheering them on. Reporters were elsewhere covering stories that seemed more important than two odd ducks trying to do the impossible.
Their greatest moment happened in almost complete isolation. Yet they persisted and succeeded not for the fame, but for the opportunity to prove their point.
Certainly there were dreams of cashing in on the commercial potential of the airplane. But the more pressing issue was to take flight in a heavier than air machine of their own design. In short, they desired to do the impossible.
They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, flying repeatedly over the sands of the beach. Their longest flight that day was a whopping 59 seconds. Just shy of one minute.
Twenty-four years later Charles Lindbergh extended the duration of flight to an astounding 33 hours. His eastward journey from North America to Europe was a watershed moment that threw open the doors to a whole new way of travel, of shipping cargo, of doing business, of living. The world changed overnight.
It just took a couple hundred years of experimentation, sacrifice, and dedication to set the conditions that allowed the events of that particular night to work out as well as they did.
That’s still true today. It takes years of imagination, engineering, and experimentation to make the eureka moment happen. But it happens. And it happens over and over and over again.
This life we lead is a fascinating thing.
Less than 20 years after Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic adventure a young man from Ohio began taking flight lessons at his local airport. He was determined, earned his pilot certificate at 16, and went on to a long and colorful career as a pilot, engineer, teacher, and notoriously private individual. Once, Neil Armstrong flew to the moon, landed, and got out of his spindly little spacecraft to walk around a bit.
Each of these momentous achievements — the Wright’s development of the airplane, Lindbergh’s pressing the envelope to span an ocean, and Neil Armstrong’s stroll on the moon — they all share one common thread. These feats were achieved by men who were at one time thought of as little more than the guy next door. Local kids who were quiet, introspective, somewhat shy, and not particularly impressive to the casual observer.
They flew from fields of sand, and mud, and grass. They hand-propped their aircraft to get them started. They flew with minimal, if any, instrumentation at all. They worked and scrimped to save the cash they needed to satisfy their dreams. And they succeeded, each one doing the impossible. Yet they did it anyway. Impossibility is a state of mind. They each overcame that self-imposed limitation.
This matters because when we ruminate on the accomplishments of these men and others, we put ourselves in their place. We recognize that we too have the stuff of greatness buried deep inside us. “I could do that,” we think to ourselves. And often we’re right. We could do that.
So what’s next?
It is our charge to recognize the progression of the science and art of technological advancement. Whatever might be required, each step along the way requires human hands and human intellect to bring it about. And you have that. You are human. You dream. You believe. You work to achieve goals. You strive for something greater than that which currently exists.
Somewhere in the world there is a young man or woman who appears unremarkable. But they are not. They are the instigator of the next great advance in aeronautics. They are the spark that will light the fire that puts thousands to work refining their discovery, making it better, safer, less expensive, and more reliable.
Maybe that next great advance will be proposed by someone you know. Maybe it will come sooner than we think. Maybe it will be you.
Until they reveal themselves and their idea, let’s set ourselves on the path to establish an environment that is prepared to seek out and accept the next big thing. Let’s celebrate these people.
Let’s celebrate ourselves. For it is we who will make the discoveries, test the limits of our potential, and carry the torch for those who come behind us.
And while we’re at it, let’s consider what we have in common with the Wrights, the Lindberghs, the Armstrongs and their peers. We are not Neanderthals, we are humans. We are of the species that conquered the air above our heads and the empty void of space beyond it. And we did it all within the timeframe of a single human life. Celebrate that.
Celebrate ourselves and let’s give ourselves permission to go conquer that next impossible goal, and then the one that lies beyond that, and the next.
We have quite a legacy to live up to, but we can do it if we open our minds and our hearts to the possibilities available to us.