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Neil Armstrong: Much progress since Wright brothers

Neil Armstrong
Neil Armstrong

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(CNN) -- The Wright brothers made history 99 years ago Tuesday, ushering in a new era with their series of manned flights. Only six decades later, astronaut Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the moon.

Armstrong and other aviation pioneers were honored Tuesday at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington. CNN space correspondent Miles O'Brien spoke to CNN anchor Bill Hemmer about the preparations and his interview with Armstrong.

O'BRIEN: I'm standing, or sitting, actually, on the mezzanine above the Milestones In Flight gallery. ... Preparations (are) in their final stages for the beginning of the yearlong celebration which will mark the centennial of flight. There's the banner on the dais. This will answer the question that's been on many people's mind, what do John Travolta and John Glenn have in common? Well, it's airplanes. And there you see the 1903 Wright flyer and a mannequin up there, which would be Orville Wright. That first flight occurred about 10:35 a.m. Eastern Time, (at) Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk (North Carolina), December 17, 1903. It lasted about 12 seconds. There were three other flights that morning: another one lasting 12 seconds; another one 15 seconds; and the final flight, Wilbur's flight, lasting 59 seconds, (which) ended sort of ignominiously with a crash into the sand dunes.

But the fact is they had proven that powered flight with a human being could happen. Neil Armstrong is here, also the great-niece of the Wrights, Amanda Wright Lane.

I spoke with Neil Armstrong and her just a few moments ago, and I asked Dr. Armstrong when he first started thinking and dreaming about the Wrights as he grew up in Ohio.

ARMSTRONG: I was a devotee of the brothers Wright and had read much of their early recorded statements and letters and memos and so on. So I think that many aviators have come to appreciate what a great step forward those two brothers made in remarkable circumstances.

O'BRIEN: When you look at 99 years of accomplishment, on the one hand, tremendous leaps, and yet in some respects, and I'm talking more about space travel here, when you compare where things were 40 or 50 years after the Wrights in the world of aviation, comparing that to the Space Age, do you get the sense that the Space Age hasn't progressed as it should?

ARMSTRONG: It's easy to say that we should be doing more, and perhaps we should. We'd certainly like to be doing more. But the fact is that we have come out in a remarkable way in this first century of flight. The Wrights correctly identified that the problem above all others that was preventing successful flight was the ability to what they call balance and steer, what today we call stability and control. That remains one of the principal problems of flying aircraft of very high performance, including air frigates like the X-15, and spacecraft and helicopters, and all kinds of things.

They identified the problem, and they solved it, at least to the extent that their machine required.

O'BRIEN: What about this year? This is the beginning of an important year of commemoration. Why is it so important to commemorate this event?

ARMSTRONG: Oh, this is a wonderful opportunity because so many people have sharp recollections of a very large percentage of the increases in flight that occurred during this past century. So it's meaningful to all the devotees of aviation, all the people who fly, all the people who have an interest in the achievements in aviation in this past century. It's, we're just delighted.

LANE: It's also important to get the young folks. There are folks that have lived this history that are very excited about it. But to get the young folks thinking about it again, thinking about aviation, its past, its present and what is going to be the future, it's important to get them excited, as well.

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