Some Background

Floating to SpaceFloating to Space - The Airship to Orbit Program by John M. Powell is the fascinating account of "America's other space program". Since 1993, John Powell of JP Aerospace and a large group of volunteers have been sending balloons to the edge of space, 100,000 feet up and higher. To put that into perspective, airlines fly their jets to 30,000 feet and occasionally 40,000 feet.

Weather balloons are flown this high all the time, as do an increasing number of hobbyists, but with JP Aerospace there's a difference. They've been flying these balloons to test equipment and procedures for eventually going all the way to Earth's orbital altitude. As an example, the International Space Station (ISS) is in orbit at around 217 miles (350 km) or 1,145,760 feet.

The approach they've been gradually building up to is to use a first stage airship (think of the Goodyear balloon only much larger and more sophisticated) to get to 140,000 feet. There it would offload passengers and cargo to a Dark Sky Station, a sort of habitat floating at the edge of space. Then an orbital airship would fly the passengers and cargo the next stage of the journey all the way to orbit.

Floating to Space

The Book's Introduction

The book starts out showing us the problems with our existing chemical rocket, brute force methods for getting from the Earth's surface to orbit. These methods are likened to crossing a river by hurling explorers through the air using large slingshots. It then points out that it would be much simpler to just float them across the river in boats, which is akin to the JP Aerospace goal of floating to orbit in balloons. It's at this point that we're given a brief glimpse of the JP Aerospace airship to orbit two-stage system.

How it all works

For the first two thirds of the book, a two pronged approach is used to take us through the technology. We are given chapters where we follow Aubrey, a Network Engineer, as he takes the first step on a journey to Mars, going from the Earth's surface to Earth orbit using JP Aerospace's airship to orbit system. Each chapter follows him on a different stage such as arriving at the first stage airship terminal, floating up in the first stage airship, arriving at a Dark Sky Station, and so on.

The chapters describing each stage of Aubrey's journey alternate with chapters detailing the technology involved in those stages.

Along the way we are also taught about the different layers of Earth's atmosphere, the volume of space through which this whole journey takes place. We learn about the troposphere, where we live and jets fly, the stratosphere, home of the ozone layer, the mesosphere and so on. We even find out that there's microbial life inhabiting the high reaches of the sky. We're also given a fascinating history of ballooning, starting 1,500 years ago with the possibility that the Nazca lines were drawn with the help of balloonists looking down from above. An interesting combination of rocket and balloon we encounter is the rockoon, a rocket lifted high above much of the thick atmosphere by balloon and then launched from there.

Suffice it to say, there's far more meat to this book than I have room for here.

The actual research and development

The latter third of the book then covers JP Aerospace's research and development work done since 1993. They started out with launching simple weather balloons, rockets and rockoons. They experimented with various configurations for the Dark Sky Station to arrive at the 5 armed design shown in the above diagram. They've also flown triangular shaped airships starting at 20 feet long, then 90 and 175 feet, the latter built under an Air Force contract.

In the book we see that JP Aerospace is a business and has been profitable since its inception, much of the income coming from advertising. Organizations pay to have their logo photographed at the edge of space with the black of space and Earth's blue horizon as background. But they also promote young mind's interest in space by offering schools the free service of having students fill ping pong balls with experiments and then carry them up along for the ride, the PongSats program.

And once again, as with my overview above of the first two thirds of the book, this is only the tip of the iceberg of their development work that the book describes. The last mission in the book takes place in 2006. To see where they've gone since, visit the JP Aerospace website. I've also put together a summary with diagrams focusing on just the airship to orbit program on my own website. The websites' should keep you going until the your copy of the book arrives in the mail to take you the rest of the way. Definitely a good read.

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