The Young Girl at Oshkosh.
By Tom Vice on Oct 21, 2021
3 min read
When Boeing and Virgin Galactic announced that they’ll work together on commercial space access, my thoughts returned to a 7th-grade school girl whom I’d encountered at the AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, earlier in July.
If you don’t know the Oshkosh air show, you ought to. Organized every year since 1953 at the airport in Oshkosh, it’s a sprawling celebration of flight that takes place in the Midwest. The show takes up the whole of the Wittman airfield, which becomes the world’s busiest airport for a week as thousands of attendees swarm in and out in their private airplanes.
There were 642,000 people at this year’s show. Many fly in and camp under their wings. Others come in their motor homes. They have aerobatic displays all day, and even into the night, with flying light shows. There are outdoor movies and bands under the stars, and bratwurst cookouts and tailgates. For people who love aviation it’s a beautiful festival of flight with none of the hardcore, deal-oriented environment you have at the Paris Air Show, for example.
I was there as the CEO of Aerion. We’re building a sustainable supersonic commercial aircraft and there are few better places to spark enthusiasm for a supersonic renaissance than Oshkosh. And this is where I get back to the 7th-grader who’s at the heart of my reflection.
I was giving a short talk to the people there in the open air, and when it came time for questions, this young girl put up her hand and asked the most profound and exciting question of the day. Her question was, “Based on all the things you talk about, do you think it’s going to be possible for airplanes to fly into space?”
A young girl in a crowd of grownups, she wasn’t nervous. Her question was so natural, so uncomplicated—and frankly, so inquisitive—that I was floored by it. She came off as though she was asking a question that she already knew the answer to, in a voice that was both informed and confident. It inspires me, and fills me with optimism, that the next generation has such a straightforward vision.
As I remember it, my answer to her was full of engineering-speak – describing obstacles, safety, and programs being pursued. Looking back, my answer didn’t really rise to the level of her beautiful vision. She heard me out, and I moved on to the next question.
I’ve thought about that young girl often since that evening, and I wish I could talk to her again to give her a more thoughtful answer. I’d tell her that her courageous curiosity will most certainly lead to inventions that will completely change how we think about access to space – bringing a day where space travel will be as common as air travel is today. There will be a day when she’ll get on an airplane, most likely one she helped design, and her destination will be a hotel on orbit. Space will be a place where humanity goes to vacation, to work, to explore.
I wish I’d gone out and found that young girl after my talk at Oshkosh was over, because she showed me how our next generation thinks big. “Do you think it’s going to be possible for airplanes to fly into space?” she said. In asking me that question—and asking it with such confidence—she made it clear that it’s not just possible to do what she wondered we’d do.
She made it clear that it’s certain.