It's a tricky business, thinking of yourself as a left-leaning progressive, yet being in thrall to aviation and space flight. The former may have been democratised in recent decades, but it's still bad for the environment and, as the recent crashes of the Boeing 737 Max demonstrated, when it goes wrong it goes very wrong indeed. The latter is even more awkward to enthuse about, given that it's a legacy of Cold War rivalry, now dominated by tech and internet billionaires.
But why should the warmongers and subsidised entrepreneurs get all the fun? Why should they be the only ones permitted to enthuse about the tantalising vastness that lies beyond our busy budget skies? It's possible to remain sceptical of the motivations that underpin the history of flight, while admiring the human ingenuity it expresses.
For the true geek, nowhere is that ingenuity on more concentrated display than in a museum of flight. The best of them seem more like zoos, or maybe aviaries, than museums: full of exhibits that were created to soar free but are now imprisoned. The raked wings of old designs, once the leading edge of the future, are clipped to save space or pinned into position, butterfly-like, with supporting struts. The overwhelming sense is of motion stalled, liberty arrested, but that doesn't diminish the aura of wonder.
Perhaps because of its proximity to Boeing's HQ at Paine Field – scene of so many aeronautical firsts – the museum of flight in Seattle is one of the very best. Having family in Washington State, I've visited it several times and never fail to be inspired by the way it captures the essence of aviation's historic excitement in such a concentrated form.
The museum's displays are arranged chronologically, and if you've ever doubted how powerful the dream of flying is for some human beings, you only have to take a look at the kind of contraptions early aviators were willing to climb into in order to become airborne. Wings were made of ash or hickory and covered in hand-sewn fabric. Fuselages were initially non-existent, then, for some time, flimsy beyond belief. Pioneers of powered flight in the US – a significant number of them female – were clearly a slender bunch. Should an averagely-proportioned American of today attempt to board one of the aeroplanes in which they flew, he would reduce it to kindling before he had even got one leg into the cockpit.
The most arresting theme of early aviation is expendability. You expect a lot of the unhinged barnstormers to have died prematurely, or 'bought the farm' as they used to say; but the life expectancy of the sane flyers wasn't much higher.
Chastened by such evidence of human dauntlessness, I moved on to the main display in the Great Gallery. This six-storey glass building contains 50 aircraft, more than 20 of which are suspended from the ceiling thanks to an innovative truss suspension system. The result is stunning. Gaze upwards and you see a fleet of aeroplanes from different eras all pointing in the same direction – as if they were flying in formation through a time warp. There are far too many to describe in detail. But each era has its unequivocal stars.
From the 1920s there's the Ryan M1. A mail plane with a fuselage covered in silver scales, it looks endearingly like a flying trout. But even non-aviation buffs would have little trouble in recognising it: the 'Spirit of St Louis' in which Charles Lindbergh made the first transatlantic flight was a modified version of the M1.
The early 1930s offer the Boeing 247-D, the world's first true airliner. Elegantly styled, it was versatile, easy to manoeuvre and economical to operate. In 1936 competition from this place inspired McDonnell Douglas to build the legendary DC-3. Able to carry 28 passengers in unmatched comfort, the DC-3 inaugurated the first transcontinental sleeper service – from New York to Los Angeles. More than any other plane, it evokes a golden age in commercial air travel when each passenger seemed to have a minimum of two flight attendants assigned and first class was the only class there was.
The piston-engine phase gradually ended and the jet age got off to a promising start in 1949 with the de Havilland Comet. With its four Rolls Royce Avon 525B engines mounted in the wings' leading edge rather than jutting out beneath, the Comet still exudes svelte power. But two deadly crashes within a fortnight in 1954 grounded the Comet and by the time it flew again Boeing had stolen the lead with the 707.
In the modern era of mass air travel the aircraft have grown ever larger and more powerful. Broadly speaking, the Boeing 707 gave way to the tri-jets like the DC10, which gave way to the 747 Jumbo, which gave way, in turn, to the Airbus A380 Super-Jumbo. But to the untrained eye, most of those planes look dispiritingly similar to one another.
The only exception is Concorde. The museum's great jewel, it sits slightly apart from the other exhibits, like an aged but still graceful dowager in the private room of an exclusive retirement home. Inside, the passenger cabin is surprisingly cramped, but it conveys an unmistakable sense of exclusivity. Long-term aviation buffs who never flew on her can only wistfully imagine what it would have been like to travel at twice the speed of sound, watching the sky shade into royal blue as the air thinned and the curve of the earth disclosed itself.
There's just one other aircraft in the museum's collection that has flown higher than the Concorde, and that's the SR-71, commonly known as the Blackbird. Occupying centre stage in the Great Gallery, it is the fastest, highest flying air-breathing jet ever built. The inordinate size of its engines and blunt malevolence of its outline seem to symbolise everything that was most terrifying about the Cold War: geopolitical standoff allied to military technology developing at an awesome speed. The most amazing thing about the Blackbird is that although it entered service in 1963 and last flew in 1997, it still looks like something out of science fiction – as if it had been beamed back from a future you would rather not live to see.
The Blackbird flew to 100,000 feet – the edge of our atmosphere. If you go much higher than that you're effectively in space. The American and Russian capsules that went there are also well-represented, although, the Space Shuttle aside, they lack the graceful contours of aircraft, having been designed to operate in a vacuum. Indeed they look, paradoxically, rather like old-fashioned diving bells – the only difference being that the American versions boast fewer randomly sprouting antennae and bolted-on airlocks.
The museum does have a shuttle, but it isn't one of the scorched, pock-marked survivors: Atlantis, Discovery or Endeavour. They are spending their well-earned retirements in Washington and Florida. The museum's exhibit is the original, full-scale training mock-up, the SST (Space Shuttle Trainer), which is identical, inside and out, to one of the original vehicles. Every shuttle crew member learned how to be astronauts aboard this test article. What's more, because it's a mock-up, museum visitors can climb aboard and visit the flight deck and cargo bay, instead of having to view it from a respectful distance, as they would at Cape Kennedy or the Smithsonian.
The true story of the Space Shuttle – appalling and thrilling in equal measure – has yet to be properly told. Born of Nixon-era budget compromise, it looked like an indomitable beast, but was the most dangerous way ever devised of putting humans into space: horribly fragile and complex, with no escape system and – at launch – no 'off' switch. Political expedience kept it flying, but its crews were under no illusion that almost every successful launch was a near miss: the dodging of a hypersonic bullet. In an era of apparent safety obsession, it hid in plain sight as an undertaking of preposterous danger.
Indeed, the first half-century of human space flight (1961-2011) was always far more perilous than the general public was led to believe. Astronauts and cosmonauts called back the spirit of the early aviators: immense heroism summoned to explore an barely known region for the first time. The only difference was that their heroism didn't dwell in trying to control wayward machines; it was the more passive heroism that you need in order to strap yourself on top of an intercontinental ballistic missile that has a history of blowing up on launch more often than not.
Pete Conrad, Apollo astronaut and native of Seattle, put it most succinctly: 'You're lying there on top of 600,000 gallons of fuel, in a machine that's 365 feet tall and contains over six million moving parts – all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract'. As well as commanding the mission that rescued the crippled Skylab space station in 1973, Conrad was the third man to walk on the moon in 1969. Having survived the radiation-scoured vacuum of space and the perils of launch and re-entry on several occasions, he died, freakishly, in a motorcycle accident in 1999.
The museum's space displays are eloquent testimony to his achievements and those of his peers. But they also provoke mixed feelings in the avowed space buff. The Apollo exhibit boasts a scorched original capsule in which astronauts travelled to the moon, plus scale models of the lunar excursion module and the Saturn 5 rocket. The contours of these vehicles are as quaintly redolent of the 1960s as a lava lamp. But they represent things we stopped doing more than 40 years ago. Or, at least, stopped doing until now.
There's no denying that the most exciting imminent developments will be the preserve of the wealthy. A quieter, less polluting version of supersonic passenger transport is due to resume in the next decade. Billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk intend to hurl millionaires into orbit and perhaps on to the moon, which will be exciting to witness, even if slightly fewer prayers may be offered for their safe return than for the men of Apollo and Soyuz.
But there are interesting developments for us mere mortals too. The push to make long-haul flights greener, cheaper and more comfortable, with planes like the Dreamliner and its heirs, promises widened horizons. There is also increasing investment in the return of environmentally-friendly airships for the masses. These behemoths would aim to make a three- or four-day journey an enjoyable part of a holiday, rather than something to be endured. Lifted by non-flammable inert helium and powered by solar fuel cells, they would contain cabins, restaurants, cinemas and promenade decks.
Soaring skywards may seem, at times, like an escape from reality – a leap into the realm of technobabble and a kind of neo-liberty. And there's no question that flight's pioneers, from Lindbergh to Musk, have, at times, demonstrated a less than wholehearted empathy for the earth-bound plight of their fellow human beings. But it remains vital that an increasing number of the world's inhabitants have the chance to fly. After all, the more a nation's population has seen of distant countries and their citizens, the less likely it is to endorse wars against them; or be fooled into demonising them as unknowable 'others'; or, indeed, to vote for isolation.