January 31, 2011
Once you get used to the slightly overcaffeinated host, this is a pretty cool project —to drop a bunch of paper airplanes from a high-altitude balloon and see where they land. The team launched their balloon earlier this month, as the video shows. But, from what I can tell on their website and Twitter feed, nobody has turned up an airplane yet.
They aren’t the first to try it, by the way:
October 19, 2010
As prizes go, this was a big one. In 1901, French oil tycoon and aviation patron Henry Deutsch de la Meurthe put up 100,000 francs (equivalent to more than $500,000 today) for the first airman who could fly a 7-mile circuit starting from a park in Paris, rounding the Eiffel Tower, then returning to the starting point, within 30 minutes. Heavier-than-air flight was still a couple of years away, so this was a contest for powered balloons. And Brazilian-born Alberto Santos-Dumont, the most famous airman in France, was ready with his airship No. 6.
In his 1904 autobiography, Santos-Dumont grumbled about some of the rules attached to the Deutsch prize. First, the flight had to be witnessed by a committee of the Aero Club, which had to be notified of the attempt 24 hours in advance (even though the balloonist wouldn’t know about weather conditions so far ahead of time). Once the committee was gathered, Santos-Dumont feared he “would be under a kind of moral pressure to go on with his trial,” whether or not he and his machine were ready. And it would be inconsiderate to ask the committee to show up at dawn, when atmospheric conditions would be best. “The duellist may call out his friends at that sacred hour, but not the air-ship captain,” he wrote.
So it was that at the inconvenient (for the balloonist) hour of 2:42 p.m. on Saturday, October 19, 1901, No. 6 rose 250 yards into the air and headed for the Eiffel Tower. It wasn’t an easy flight. The balloon’s engine failed three times, but Santos-Dumont managed to restart it each time, and crossed over his starting point with 45 seconds to spare in the half hour. According to biographer Paul Hoffman, after he came down, he leaned over the side of his craft and yelled “Have I won the prize?”
Hundreds of spectators responded in unison, “Yes! Yes!” and swarmed the airship. He was showered with flower petals that swirled like confetti. Men and women cried. The Comtesse d’Eu dropped to her knees, raised her hands to the heavens, and thanked God for protecting her fellow countryman. The countess’ companion, the wife of John D. Rockefeller, squealed like a schoolgirl. A stranger presented Santos-Dumont with a small white rabbit, and another handed him a steaming cup of Brazilian coffee.
Now the bad news: According to the Aero Club, he hadn’t won the prize. The rules stated that his round-trip flight had to be completed (when ground crews grabbed the balloon’s guide rope) within 30 minutes. And he’d been 40 seconds late. The Parisian press and public were furious on their hero’s behalf, but the club stuck to its rules. Not until November 4 did it finally vote to award Santos-Dumont the prize money.
“But the action was too late to appease him,” according to Hoffman. “He promptly resigned from the Aero Club, thanked the people of Paris for their support, and announced that he would be spending the winter in Monte Carlo.” Then he gave half the prize money to the poor.
October 13, 2010
In September 1870, not long after the start of the Franco-Prussian War, the city of Paris was under siege by Prussian soldiers. By the 19th, the German army had blocked all communication into or out of the city. There was nothing worse, wrote French journalist Francisque Sarcey, than to “live cut off from the universe in the capital of the civilized world, like Robinson on his island.”
Rumors swept through the city. Some said the Prussian army was about to be crushed by a million-ton sledge hammer carried aloft by a fleet of balloons. Others reported seeing French and Prussian aeronauts battle in the air.
What was true was that the director general of the Posts immediately established a “Balloon Post” to carry messages outside the city. For Parisians, “The success of this aerial trip,” wrote Wilfrid de Fonvielle, “produced a feeling of happiness as if the enemy had been vanquished in a great battle.”
Some 67 balloons ascended from Paris during the 128-day siege, carrying more than 24,000 pounds of mail. (The National Postal Museum has an extensive collection of these letters. In an attempt to send messages into Paris, letters were placed inside zinc balls, which were tossed into the Seine and were supposed to float downriver until captured by a net; while none were recovered by Parisian residents during the siege, the balls continued to turn up as late as 1982.)
There weren’t enough balloons for the task, so Parisians immediately set up two balloon-making factories. Silk was difficult to find, so calico was used for the envelopes, yards of it varnished by women seated at long tables. Sailors made the dragging ropes, netting and baskets; each balloon took 12 days to make. Pilots were recruited from naval detachments in the city and from the civilian population. By October 12, two of the new balloons—the Washington and the Louis Blanc—were ready. The Washington came under fire, eventually smashing into some trees. The Louis Blanc traveled for three hours and finally made it to Belgium.
Two aeronauts were lost at sea. Six were captured by Germans. One drifted more than 800 miles to Norway. But these novice pilots transported at least 110 passengers, some 400 pigeons (letters were sent into Paris using an early form of microfilm; once the pigeons carrying their fragile film reached Paris, a group of clerks copied each message and sent it to the addressee), three million letters—and hope. John Fisher writes in his 1965 book Airlift 1870, “As the siege went on, as ascent followed ascent, the balloons, in the eyes of Parisians and in the eyes of the world, came to be regarded not merely as useful carriers but as symbols of French daring and enterprise and success. Each flight accomplished, each letter delivered, was in a sense another little victory over the great German war-machine; a defiance, a gesture made by an individual.”
October 6, 2010
In the wake of several misleading news headlines, researchers at Cranfield University in the U.K. have had to set the record straight: No, they’re not looking for aliens in Earth’s atmosphere.
But they are looking for microbes floating around in the stratosphere, at altitudes up to 22 miles. The Cranfield Astrobiological Stratospheric Sampling Experiment (CASS-E) team hopes to launch a balloon any day now from the ESRANGE launch center in Sweden. Taking a census of the single-celled critters that can survive in such an extreme environment will help scientists stake out the limits of biological adaptability, and help them design instruments for future life detection experiments on other planets.
October 22, 2009
On this day in 1797, André-Jacques Garnerin made the first high-altitude jump using a parachute, over Parc Monceau in Paris. Garnerin’s contraption—a basket suspended from a silk parachute—was cut loose from a balloon at an altitude of 2,000 feet. An eyewitness recalled:
He made a dreadful lurch in the air that forced a sudden cry of fear from the whole multitude, and made a number of women faint. Meanwhile Citizen Garnerin descended into the plain of Monceau; he mounted his horse upon the spot, and rode back to the park attended by an immense multitude, who gave vent to their admiration for the skill and talent of the young aeronaut.
The wild swinging of the parachute was as hard on Garnerin’s stomach as it was on spectators’ nerves. From an account of a later jump in England:
The countless multitude that witnessed his ascent uttered a scream of terror as the Parachute…was seen to fall with the utmost velocity and in a collapsed state. For some moments, feelings of dread and anxiety thrilled every spectator; but the Parachute at length slowly expanded, and hope revived; yet the oscillations of the machine became so violent that the basket, swinging like a pendulum, very frequently appeared to be nearly in a horizontal position with the Parachute. In approaching the earth, the air, from its increasing density, opposed a stronger resistance, and the oscillations proportionally decreased. The intrepid aeronaut reached the ground in a field…His entire descent [had] occupied about ten minutes: he was extremely pale, and the violent rocking he had experienced produced a short sickness, but was not attended by any further inconvenience.
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