Bart Barthelemy, Founding Director, Wright Brothers Institute
In his 1986 State of the Union address to Congress, President Ronald Reagan told the assembled congress, as well as the nation that was following the speech on national television, that we were going to build an ”Orient Express”. He used this term because his speechwriter thought that this catchy phrase would be more understandable to the American public than the actual goal of developing a Mach 25 hypersonic airplane that could circle to globe in less than an hour. And it also avoided alluding to the fact that a Mach 25 airplane could deliver payloads into space or around the globe quickly and effectively.
After the address, a team was assembled to create and manage the project, which was quickly renamed the “National Aerospace Plane” program, or in typical government acronym fashion, NASP. I had the good fortune of heading up the program, ostensibly because of my background in hypersonics and advanced technology. In actuality, we ended up getting over 5000 of the best scientists, engineers and test pilots in the country to participate in the program, and my role was primarily focused on cheerleading and interfacing with over fifteen government agencies who wanted to “manage” the program.
Because President Reagan, and his successor President George H. W. Bush, strongly supported NASP, we were able to stay on course for six years, until the Clinton administration cancelled the program because they viewed it as “Republican”. We were not able to build a Mach 25 hypersonic airplane, let alone fly one, by the time the program was cancelled, but did advance the state of the art in many areas of technology, program management and innovative processes. When NASP ended in 1992, I asked many of the 5000 people who had worked on the program if they thought we had failed. Almost to a person they said, “We didn’t fail, we changed the world”. And I agree, because here’s what really happened.