Airships Offer Alternative Stairway to Space

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In the 2009 Pixar animated cartoon “Up” a widower affixes hundreds of balloons to his house and floats high above the clouds and between continents.

An idea that may sound equally preposterous is to float a very large ballooned vehicle right up to the edge of space — and then give it a boost into orbit.

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On Oct. 22, the altitude record for lighter-than-air craft was broken when an airship launched from Nevada’s Black Rock desert ascended to 95,085 feet. After one of two tandem balloons affixed to a 30-foot long carbon airframe burst, a command was sent to release the other balloon and the vehicle parachuted back home.

It’s designers, the California-based company JP Aerospace that builds military balloons, say this is just the beginning of a plan to loft a manned station to 200,000 ft. It would serve as a gateway to low Earth orbit.

Talk about up, up and away, as the rock group The Fifth Dimension crooned in 1967.

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This is a logical extension of aviation history where lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air vehicles vied for dominance of the sky. In 1783, the first aeronauts in history flew aboard a hot air balloon to an altitude of 1,500 feet. They were a sheep, a duck, and a hen.

Fast-forward to 1937 and the spectacular explosion of the passenger zeppelin, the Hindenburg. The stunning footage of Hindenburg’s fiery disintegration symbolized the death of balloons for commercial aviation.

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But the now-retired NASA space shuttle was the Hindenburg of the space age. Like the zeppelins, the shuttles were a limited fleet, extremely weather-sensitive, fragile, expensive, required huge ground support crews, and were ultimately retired after two deadly accidents.

In the post-shuttle era, private companies are competing to make human access to space comparatively simpler and affordable.

But it’s time to think of something other than rockets for passenger travel into orbit. To me, floating up to a sky-city platform at 200,000 feet is more leisurely than being strapped into a rocket that zips you to the edge of space and back in 25 minutes. Virgin Galactic, using the suborbital private spaceplane SpaceShipTwo, is planning this quickie rocket roller coaster ride for commercial passengers.

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This is what the folks at JP Aerospace are dreaming about: The first part of their space balloon infrastructure is an atmospheric airship that would ascend to 140,000 feet. The vehicle is operated by a crew of three and can be configured for cargo or passengers. The hybrid design, using a combination of buoyancy and aerodynamic lift to fly, is driven by propellers that operate in near-vacuum conditions.

The second part of the architecture is a suborbital platform called Dark Sky Station (DSS). It is permanently crewed and parked at 140,000 feet. This sky-high truck stop is the destination of the atmospheric airship and the departure port for the orbital airship. Initially, the DSS will be the construction facility for large orbital vehicles.

The third part of the architecture is an airship/dynamic vehicle that flies directly to orbit. This V-shaped craft is humongous in order to utilize what’s left of the rarefied atmosphere. It is at least four times the length of an oil supertanker! The mega-mothership uses buoyancy to climb to 200,000 feet. From there it uses solar-electric propulsion to slowly accelerate continuously for several days as it spirals up to low Earth orbit. (Swap out the cabin music’s “Up, Up and Away,” with Lead Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”)

There are significant advantages to going the un-rocket route say the JP Aerospace engineers. Balloon megalifters offer low-cost bulk access to space. They are truly reusable and capable of multiple orbital flights before servicing. Large structures can be towed already assembled into orbit.

Most importantly, such balloon-borne transportation system would bring more safety and reliability to reaching space. Getting into space and getting back would be a slowly controlled process, like a luxury liner docking at a port.

By contrast, in a rocket-based system, ascent means strapping yourself atop a giant flying gas tank with powerful engines tweaked to the brink of exploding (which essentially describes the raw physics of a conventional rocket propulsion.) What’s more, atmospheric reentry essentially means plummeting back toward to Earth inside a manmade meteor.

No doubt space balloons are, shall I say, lofty dreams with daunting engineering challenges. But such an alternative means of space transportation could offer simple, rapid and low-cost expansion of space research and technology development.

Ultimately, it could dramatically increase public access to space and be more economical that the brute-force rocket route.

Images courtesy JP Aerospace