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A Summertime High

August 19, 2001

To anyone who has ever concentrated really hard, even in August, positioning the wings and tail just right and, tongue between teeth, launched a balsa airplane into the perfect frontyard breeze and watched it soar and dip and then inexplicably soar more, nearly to the street corner, the news that NASA has flown an unmanned elongated flying wing to a record altitude of 96,500 feet inspires awe.

"Awesome" is applied to many things nowadays, including even teenage singers. However, not much inspires old-fashioned, genuine jaw-dropping awe. After all, we've golfed on the moon, remotely driven--and broken--a toy car on Mars and dispatched a lonely satellite to beyond our galaxy with messages for beings we can't imagine. Earthlings still blow each other up for religious and ethnic reasons. But we've beaten smallpox and are closing on other afflictions. We watch live TV transmitted from orbiting space stations and then blithely mute it to take an intercontinental cell call, complaining about static.

But remotely piloting a 247-foot wing made of coffee-cup plastic foam and driven at 23 miles an hour by 14 solar-powered propellers with the strength of hair dryers reignites that delicious, mouth-open awe that became uncool sometime before eighth grade. Sure, the 1,577-pound Helios aircraft has commercial possibilities; flying for months without landing, it could replace expensive satellites. And the military will doubtless divine some lethal mission for the fragile craft someday. But even if you can't lie down right now in soft grass and gaze into the blue sky, just think for a summer's moment about the doing of it--about imagining, designing and building a curvaceous wing that carries 62,000 solar panels and obeys engineers who dream. It lifts off a runway in Hawaii and soars out over the Pacific up through wispy clouds hour after hour until it is more than 18 miles high, where the sky turns black.

And then see whether, honestly, you don't feel like running into the kitchen and yelling: "Wow! Did you see that?"

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