Seattle writer Sam Howe Verhovek has a fascinating new book out called Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World. It tells the story of how the Boeing Company conquered commercial jet aviation.
While we take Boeing jet travel for granted today, it was no sure thing that the 707 and the line of aircraft it begat would dominate the skies and launch a new aviation age. The success had a lot to do with Boeing’s culture of quality engineering combined with executive risk taking. Over the years, Boeing has bet the whole company on new products like the 707, the 747, and the 787. It has a history of winning its big bets.
There has always been a cowboy element to that success, most notably embodied in Boeing test pilot Alvin "Tex" Johnston, who performed an unsanctioned 360-degree barrel roll of a 707 prototype over Lake Washington during Seafair in 1955 and nearly gave Boeing CEO Bill Allen a coronary, but it thrilled the crowd and proved the craft's airworthiness to a public well aware that an earlier model of passenger jet, Britain's Comet, had a bad habit of disintegrating in midflight. Unfortunately, it wasn't during test flights.
As I read Verhovek’s book, I thought that maybe it's appropriate that Boeing is no longer headquartered here, because Seattle is now a city that likes consensus more than cowboys. The company's corporate culture might become too Seattleized. Already, we've seen new projects like the 787 slow down and stumble, just like every other Seattle transportation project.
Boeing announced last September that it's designing a space capsule that can fly tourists into orbit, with flights to begin as early as 2015. Speaking of gambling, Boeing won an $18 million contract to develop the spaceship in conjunction with a company in Las Vegas. The capsule would carry seven passengers — four professional astronauts and three high-paying tourists.
Such ventures are always speculative and risky, but can you imagine what would happen if this capsule were designed and constructed according to Seattle's current standards? Imagine the delayed and confused Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project — in space!
Here are some givens:
Any spacecraft would have to be a hybrid so as to reduce the need for rocket fuel.
Space helmets would be replaced with bike helmets; passengers would have to pedal to get into orbit.
Extra seats would be installed for companion animals.
The project would be partly funded by aggressive panhandling in Belltown.
At least one seat would have to be reserved for a homeless person.
In-flight entertainment would be provided by librarian Nancy Pearl reading from Real Change.
Your Orca pass would work, of course. You’d prepay your $20 million fare before departure. If you had to cancel, no problem. You could still use the credit to pay for your next 10 million trips on Metro Transit.
The City Council would ban mummies and circus animals from being transported into space.
Eight chickens and four miniature goats would be allowed.
The International Space Station would be asked to open a farmers’ market.
Tom Douglas’ mac ’n’ cheese and Starbucks coffee would be served from squeeze tubes. Ditto vegan paste from a neighborhood P-Patch.
The capsule would be hand-blown by Dale Chihuly.
The destination of each launch would be determined before every flight by consensus of the spaceship's stakeholders.
Every stakeholder decision would be immediately questioned by Mayor Mike McGinn.
The capsule itself would not be allowed to orbit over any racist or homophobic states or planets.
Following Seattle Public Schools’ method of appointing principals, the capsule could have as many as three captains.
Capsule launches from the Qwest Field’s north parking lot would become part of Pioneer Square revitalization. Flights would be directed from Union Gospel Mission Control.
Our next exciting project: the Paul Allen space ark.
This column originally appeared in the January issue of Seattle Magazine. Reprinted with permission.