Monday, November 19, 2012

Zeppelins: A Stairway to the Heavens?

Before the space age, there was the airship age. Dirigibles were so popular in the early 20th century that a mooring for airships was fitted to the top of the Empire State Building upon its completion in 1931!

A dirigible docked to the Empire State Building.
Source: ephemeralnewyork.

But, the mooring was only used once, and only for a couple minutes. It turns out that docking a giant blimp to a building over 1,000 feet tall is nearly impossible; the winds at that height are too strong. Soon after that first brief docking attempt, a Goodyear blimp also tried and failed to dock at the Empire State Building mooring. Its crew did manage to lower a stack of the evening newspapers down a 100 foot long line to the building roof, though! It seems the Empire State Building's airship docking port wasn't considered practical even when it was built. Its construction and attempts to use it were pretty much just a publicity stunt.

A Goodyear blimp flying over the Empire State Building.
Source: New York Times.

The failed attempt to turn the Empire State Building into a dirigible port foreshadowed the end of the airship era. The 1930s saw a rise in airship accidents (e.g., the Hindenburg disaster). Soon, airplanes overtook airships as much faster, more reliable, and safer. Since the 1930s, there's been very little need for airships as a means to transport people or objects. The few airships left in operation now satisfy a small niche market: they're an efficient way to float in place or cruise very, very slowly through the sky... and that's about all.

The view out the back of Airship Ventures' Blimp.
Source: Airship Ventures.

The evening I started writing this post on airships I found out that one of the U.S.'s few (maybe only?) private dirigible operators, Mountain View based Airship Ventures, is likely closing. CEO Brian Hall cited the tenfold increase in helium prices since the company's founding in 2007 as one of the challenges the company faced.

Airship Ventures' Eureka launches.
Source: Wikipedia.

I think airships are so neat; I'm sad to see Airship Ventures struggle to make it, much in the same way that commercial passenger space travel struggles to become a viable industry. And speaking of space travel... did you know that airships are actually useful tools for space exploration?

Pilot Katherine Board flies Airship Ventures' Eureka.
The only two female Zeppelin pilots in the world flew for Airship Ventures!
Source: Airship Ventures.

An airship is the perfect vehicle to test a starshade. What's a starshade? It's a large disk that blocks the light from a distant star, allowing for observation of that star's exoplanets. Folks have contemplated launching a starshade to sit 80,000 miles in front of the James Webb space telescope, which will hopefully launch in 2018. An airship-mounted starshade could be tested before 2018. According to a Wired article from this past February, Airship Ventures' Eureka was going to fly a starshade in Spring 2013, to block star light for Earth-based exoplanet observations. With Airship Ventures closing, I guess that won't happen now. :-(

The Airship Eureka.
Source: Wired.

Even if the Airship Eureka doesn't fly again, it will have done its part to contribute to space exploration: it has hunted for meteorites! In April of this year, a minivan-sized meteorite exploded over northern California. Researchers were especially eager to collect fragments of the meteorite, since the asteroid it came from was of a relatively rare variety, the carbonaceous chrondite. This type of rock is full of the organic molecules that serve as the building blocks for life on Earth (and elsewhere?).

NASA and SETI paid to take Eureka out on a five-hour mission to search for bits of the exploded rock. The airship cruised slowly over the Sierra Nevada foothills, and the scientists on board looked for little impact craters, finding a dozen possible sites.

April 22, 2012 a fragment of a meteorite over Nevada.

Circling back to CEO's explanation for why Airship Ventures is going out of business: helium prices have increased tenfold in the past five years. Why is helium getting so expensive? It's a fascinating question, actually. I'll talk about it in my next post.

*** Addendum: part two of this post, The Story of a Noble Gas, is posted here!

Sources: Wired; Airship Ventures; Zimbio; SFGate; Wikipedia;;


  1. Do you know that JP Aerospace has plans for air ships to orbit? It's a bit like taking an ocean liner vs. a jet to cross the ocean. Very cool stuff actually.

    I'm looking forward to the next post!

    Pam Hoffman

    1. Thanks for reading Pam! And for sharing the link to your blog- I hadn't come across it before and it's great!

      I didn't know about this possible use for airships- but that's fascinating. I've actually been thinking about writing another blog post or two on airships (maybe discussing their possible use as probes exploring the atmospheres of other planets?) Now I'll learn about JP Aerospace too!