This week marks 99 years of powered flight. To celebrate, a year's worth of activities honoring aviation history will be held throughout 2003. The festivities started last Tuesday at the Smithsonian Institute's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

December 17, 1903 marked the first successful powered flight. Since then, man has gone on to conquer the skies and even reach outer space. In honor of the last century of aerial innovation, the Air and Space Museum hosted a star-studded celebration. The master of ceremonies was actor John Travolta.

While John Travolta is best known for his roles in movies like Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Pulp Fiction, he's also an experienced aviator with eight different jet licenses. He says he first became obsessed with flight while living near New York's LaGuardia Airport as a child.

"I was captivated by the forms that flew above me," recalled John Travolta. "As a ritual I would watch them go from being in sight, to out of sight. I just admired their design and imagined what it would be like to be up there. And then my sister bought me a ticket when I was eight years old to go from Newark to Philadelphia to have lunch. It was a 20-minute flight on a DC-6, and I was completely captivated. I flew back on a United Caravel jet and I thought that I had died and gone to heaven. Ever since those moments, I've just been obsessed with aviation."

While John Travolta may have been the only Hollywood celebrity on hand, the guest list at the Air and Space Museum celebration read like a history book. Among the distinguished guests were Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon; John Glenn, the first man in space orbit; several of the original Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American fighter pilots in World War II; and relatives of the Wright Brothers, the duo who invented powered flight.

In 1903, brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright, completed the construction of a prototype airplane made out of wood and a fabric called muslin. It was a biplane and featured an engine powering two propellers on the back. The propellers were designed to push the craft forward and give it lift.

The Wright brothers were actually bicycle shop owners and as Amanda Wright Lane, the great-grand-niece of the Wright brothers, says, their experience with bicycles gave them an advantage over others dabbling in flight at that time.

"The bicycles related to flight in something very simple, which was balance," she explained. "I think that the greatest obstacle the brothers overcame in learning how to fly, was what others had not achieved yet, which was figuring out control. Lift and propulsion had more or less been, not exactly resolved, but a lot of people had a lot of ideas about it and several of those ideas would have worked, but control was a huge factor. And that's the one that the Wrights were able to manage. A lot of their ideas about control came from bicycling and also they watched birds and saw how they used their wings."

The Wrights conducted their first successful powered flight on December 17, 1903 and went on to inspire generations of aviators and pilots. Among the many fans of the Wright brothers is Tom Poberezney who is head of the Experimental Aviation Association that restores and builds vintage planes. Along with many other organizations and individuals, his group is celebrating the 100th year of powered flight by helping to put together many special events in 2003 honoring aviation history.

"One of the things we want to tell the story of - it's more than a celebration - is to share with the world, what an important part aviation's been to the way we live," said Mr. Poberezney. "Whether we fly in an airplane or not, we want to show all of the things affected by flight. It's education, it's outreach it's a celebration, it's all those things that we want to do. For those of us that fly it's easy to tell the story. Now we have to tell that story and transmit that passion to everybody else out there so they join the bandwagon and get excited about flight in this centennial year."

Various events celebrating the Centennial of Flight will be held throughout the country next year. The climax to all of those events will take place December 17, 2003. That's when an exact replica of the Wright Flyer will take off from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina exactly 100 years to the day that the Wright brothers made history.

Part of VOA's yearend series