Believe in the impossible

I was in the third grade when President John F. Kennedy announced before a joint session of Congress the goal of sending an American safely to the Moon and back before the end of the decade. I had just completed my sophomore year in high school (grade 10) when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon. He and Buzz Aldrin not only arrived in the lander Eagle, but returned to the earth safely. I connect these events with my own personal life, because I attended elementary school in the era of believing in the impossible. The goal set by the president wasn’t, of course, impossible. It just seemed that way to many people at the time that it was set.

I grew up in an atmosphere of believing that things that had previously been declared impossible could be achieved. I grew up with parents who were both pilots. I can’t remember my first ride in an airplane, but it took place when I was a tiny infant. But I knew well the history of aviation. We had a book in our home that reported that in 1895 Lord Kelvin declared that heavier-than-air flying machines were impossible. In October of 1903, the prevailing opinion of expert aerodynamicists was that it would take 10 million years for humans to build an airplane that would fly. They were wrong. Two months later on December 17, 1903, Orville Wright piloted the first airplane. It flew 120 feet. I have a picture of that flight hanging on the wall of my library. The plane is maybe three feet off of the ground in that picture. By the time I was born, my father was routinely flying at altitudes up to 12,000 feet at speeds of over 150 mph. That kind of low and slow flying seems ancient today. We hop on jet airliners that transport hundreds of people at a time and fly from continent to continent in less than a day. In fact before I was born, on Tuesday, October 14, 1947, Chuck Yeager flew faster than the speed of sound in the Bell X-1. Today the term supersonic is old hat. Now engineers are talking about hypersonic flight. At Mach 20, an aircraft will go from New York to Long Beach in less than 12 minutes. Engineers have achieved fully-controlled, aerodynamic flight at Mach 20 in unmanned vehicles.

Believing in the impossible is more than an option for those of us who live in these times. Believing in the impossible is how our future is unfolding. It isn’t just in the fields of science and engineering where believing in the impossible is helping human beings to move into our future. A few examples from the year ending today serve to illustrate.

I first heard of Teresita Gaviria in 2013. She had started a protest in front of a church in Columbia. The first event drew five mothers who had lost children in the 50 year war in Columbia. They began to gather every week. Soon there were hundreds. Then they went to prisons to speak with fighters. They lobbied the government to begin peace talks. They insisted that victims be included in high level negotiations. They were told that peace was impossible.

Teresita Gaviria believed in the impossible. And in 2016, a peace deal was reached. It has been described as groundbreaking in part because of the contributions of victims to the negotiations. Yes, there are plenty of critics, but when President Santos and Farc leader Londono shook hands after inking the deal, the crowd cheered “Yes we could!”

Sophien Kamoun is from Tunisia. He has seen first-hand the effects of pesticides in developing countries. Every year thousands die after using pesticides on diseased crops. Professor Kamoun believed that there had to be another way to produce food. He was told that it was impossible to have plants that were no longer susceptible to disease. He had the courage to believe the impossible. “Every year we lose enough food to feed hundreds of millions of people to pathogens and parasites,” he declared. In 2016, professor Kamoun successfully used gene editing to produce a tomato that is resilient to fungal disease. There is a long road ahead for plant scientists to produce plants to feed millions without the use of pesticides, but the first “impossible” step has been taken.

Dr. Hemantha Herath saw the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009 as an opportunity for the government to do something that would significantly improve the lives of the citizens of his country. He got the government to set an impossible goal - the elimination of Malaria in less than five years. Prior to the 2009 peace agreement, health workers couldn’t even get to the worst affected areas without risking their lives. In 2009 the country instituted the bold strategy of testing every patient who came to a hospital who had had a fever in the past. In 2016, it was declared official: Sri Lanka is now malaria-free.

When he was 40, Bertrand Picard traveled non-stop around the world in a hot air balloon. He made history. But after achieving that milestone, he made an impossible promise: the next time he flew around the world it would be with no fuel. He wanted to prove that clean energy was practical. Seventeen years later, on March 9, 2015, Picard took off from Abu Dhabi airport in Solar Impulse 2, an airplane with over 17,000 solar cells on its exterior. His journey was powered by nothing other than the sun. Picard took turns with co-pilot Andre Borschberg. There were a lot of challenges. The weather did not always cooperate. There were diplomatic issues obtaining clearances to land at certain airports. On July 26 of 2016, Picard landed backing Abu Dhabi, after 23 days of flight. A solar-powered airplane had flown all the way around the world.

In 2016 we have seen the impossible achieved.

In 2017 as well we’ve got to believe in the impossible.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!