Airships: A century from prototype to spaceflight?

24 02 2012

An airship that might have been, from "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." (Credit: Paramount)

Airships.  There’s a certain nostalgic thrill to the streamline, art deco aircraft heyday that nearly was.

To the point (and as illustrated above): the Empire State Building’s observation tower was originally intended to serve as a mooring point for airships.

Achieving the power of flight by harnessing a buoyant gas is simple, reliable, quiet, low-velocity, and (after shifting away from using an explosive gas) veritably safe.  -And to many’s surprise, it might soon take us to space.

USS Shenandoah, U.S. Navy ZR-1, under construction in 1923.

Early 20th Century

Many don’t realize that the United States had airships in military service, which were outgrowths of a German design reverse-engineered after World War I.

For example, from 1922-1923, the first rigid airship, ZR-1 USS Shenandoah was constructed.  Several subsequent military airships flew under the American flag prior to World War II until they became tactically obsolete.

Early 21st Cenury

Now, after decades of work, volunteer-based aerospace firm JP Aerospace has its eyes set on an orbital airship as a gateway to the stars.

Ascender airship being serviced. (Credit: JP Aerospace)

How does it work?  The system is essentially 180-degrees apart from the rocket-and-fanfare, minutes-to-space spaceflight that we’ve all become accustomed to.  Instead, two separate classes of airships and a transfer station in-between slowly loft cargo to orbit over a matter of days.

The process is something they call “Airship-to-Orbit,” or ATO.

Essentially, an airship-to-orbit spaceflight program represents finesse versus conventional rocketry’s brute force.

Though there are still engineering challenges ahead, JP Aerospace is powering through tests of their magnetohydrodynamic thrusters and are continuing toward a stunning run of 67 high-altitude balloon and sensor platform ascents.

So, a century from prototype to spaceflight?  It certainly looks possible.  And if there truly is merit to the airship-to-orbit concept, based on how quickly JP Aerospace has been able to achieve flight benchmarks on a volunteer basis, then just imagine what could happen with serious backing by a government space agency.

Food for thought.

Personally, I love the architecture.  There’s something about truly alien competition to conventional spaceflight providers that I think is sorely needed.

Ascender 6000 on approach. (Credit: JP Aerospace)





America’s other other space program

4 11 2010

Test-scale Dark Sky Station 2. Credit: JP Aerospace

A quick note this morning on one of my personal favorite space ventures, JP Aerospace.  As a truly DIY space endeavor, the firm has been making a name for itself for more than a decade with their concentrated, unconventional, volunteer-based business model and regular deployments of high-altitude-balloon-lofted platforms complete with telemetry, imaging equipment, and in some cases, secondary rockets (as “rockoons”).

What few realize, (even those who are aware of JP Aerospace,) is just how bewilderingly active they are.

Image from JP Aerospace "Away 35" mission. Credit: JP Aerospace

To start, there’s JP Aerospace’s high-altitude image program.  For a modest sponsorship fee, images are splashed on their balloon-lofted structure exteriors and imaged, providing slick stock material of a sponsoring business’s logo against the blackness of space and the curvature of the Earth.  (Toshiba even funded one of their “away” missions entirely to collect one-of-a-kind footage of an orbital floating chair for a commercial.)

While this admittedly flashy aspect of JP Aerospace is what typically gets the most press, the image sponsorship program merely helps to fund the rest of their activities, which are devoted to the development of a truly unique spaceflight architecture: Airship to Orbit (ATO).  As a three-phase process, the ATO spaceflight architecture includes an Ascender airship (transfer to 140,000 feet), a Dark Sky Station (transfer station at 140,000 feet), and an Orbital Ascender airship/spacecraft (transfer from 140,000 feet to orbit), for a smooth transition to space requiring no conventional rocketry at all (!).

Ascender 175 airship floating in a JP Aerospace hangar. Credit: JP Aerospace

-And don’t let the volunteer/grassroots feel fool you – these guys are serious professionals with a passion to rival that of any other NewSpace venture I’ve seen, and they’re in it for keeps.  With more than 45 incremental data-gathering and structural test flights behind them, aerodynamic and microgravity drop tests, high-altitude structural and construction tests, a flight and cargo-capable airship (Tandem-class), a full-scale Dark Sky Station crew cabin mock-up, magnetohydrodynamic generators being tested as I type, one book out on the process, and with another one on the way, JP Aerospace isn’t messing around.

Check them out if you get the chance.  For more information on JP Aerospace’s latest activities, check out their website, their blog, or their YouTube channel.  (-And pick up a JP Aerospace shirt or cap if you’re so inclined.  Proceeds help keep them flying!)

Systems diagram of the proposed Orbital Ascender spacecraft. Credit: JP Aerospace








%d bloggers like this: