With its splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico, the SpaceX Crew Dragon became the latest vehicle to continue the tradition of manned flights taking off from and landing on U.S. seas and shores. Many trace the beginning of this tradition to the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk, NC, in 1903 that demonstrated the first successful airplane. But this flight, as great a milestone as it was, didn’t exist in a vacuum.
In truth, the first manned vehicle to travel through U.S. aerospace did so only a few years after this country’s founding, during the administration of our first president, George Washington. On January 9, 1793, President Washington granted a safe-passage request – which usually came from ship captains or drivers of horses and carriages for permission to pass through secure areas without interference from the military – to the pilot of a vehicle never seen before on the American continent.
The pilot was visiting Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and the vehicle was a hot-air balloon, which had been invented in France a decade earlier and could transport human beings through the air at very limited distances without any built-in mechanism for steering. Blanchard and others had gone up for a series of short flights in France after the Montgolfier Brothers’ balloon traveled for 5 miles and 35 minutes on the outskirts of Paris in 1783. Those who saw and heard about the flights were fascinated, yet few grasped the implications for the future. Washington happened to be one of those few.
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