Balloons in Space!

Yes, there have been balloons in space. One was Echo 1, a big (31 m) inflated Mylar ball that briefly orbited the Earth, allowing microwaves to bounce off. Another was the launch of Strato-Lab from the deck of a Navy vessel in May 1961 for the record of just under 114000 feet for a manned balloon flight, testing pressure suits. Sadly one of the test pilots died on landing, falling out of the open gondola into the sea.

I sometimes wonder if the title of my white paper Hybrid Airship/Aerostats for Orbital Use is too formal for such a small paper. I think it’s a tall order to sweep so many crumbs together and make a muffin.

So here is one section of Hybrid Airship/Aerostat that I think brings some ideas together:

I want you to imagine an amazing vehicle. It is a wonder to behold. It can sail at speed under the sea. But when the crew so desires the ship surfaces and sails effortlessly on the surface of the sea. It is glorious to see this ship moving with the waves. The crew decides to change the mode of the ship again, its hull leaves the water and the ship becomes a creature of the air, like a great cloud, propelled as if by the wind itself. The crew changes the mode of the ship as they please, to the satisfaction of our flight plan.

By way of analogy I illustrate the proposed ship. Our vehicle is also modal, at its root a creature of our pea soup atmosphere, an air breather. But it can rise high  into the stratosphere, becoming a vessel on the boundary of heaven and earth. And yet our ship rises further, becoming an orbiting daughter of Mother Earth. These modes change as need changes. The ship can ascend and descend at will, its strength and its promise.

This modality is done by altering the pressure height, changing the density of the gas in the balloon, by venting or pressurizing the gas. This is impractical and very expensive because helium is so rare and expensive.

Aeros, a California aerospace firm specializing in blimps and aerostats, has a contract from the Department of Defense to produce a “ballast-less, vent-less” lighter-than-air vehicle to improve stability, fuel economy, and conserve lifting gas. In other words, controlling the pressure height of the balloon. While their application is terrestrial, it can be modified for extraterrestrial use. If you are wondering, I got a very cold shoulder from Aeros, a chilly note from their corporate attorney.

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