Review: Floating to Space by John M. Powell
The airship to orbit program in detail--but with some flaws
John M. Powell is the sort of visionary who gets locked up as a madman. But, like the best creative madmen, his ideas resonate with a wild kind of sense that nags constantly at you once you've heard them, until you start asking yourself: what if he's right?
Powell's idea, and the subject of the new Apogee book Floating to Space: The Airship to Orbit Program, is simplicity itself. If zeppelins and balloons can take us to the upper atmosphere--140,000 feet and beyond--why can't they take us further? Namely, all the way to orbit?
The first time you hear this idea you laugh--just the way you no doubt laughed the first time you heard of the space elevator. Yet Powell's logic, when you hear it, is equally simple. Why did the Mir space station reenter and burn up in Earth's atmosphere? Why, because its orbit decayed. But orbits don't 'decay'--not by themselves. No, the actual reason why Mir and other satellites have crashed into the Earth is wind resistance. There is a headwind even three hundred miles above the Earth; the space shuttle feels it when it's orbiting. And if you fired a bullet at a high enough velocity, it could orbit the Earth four feet off the ground, except for that same pesky headwind (and a few obstacles).
Not only is there air in space, there's enough air that a big enough wing would create lift. Powell describes that wing--a classic 'flying wing' in fact--in detail in Floating to Space. Combining the technologies of high-altitude ballooning with ion drive engines and hypersonic airfoils, he proposes a mile-long hydrogen-filled wing, so diaphanous it would be torn apart by the slightest breeze at sea level. But launched from a 'black sky station' at 140,000 feet, this orbital ascender can surf the upper atmosphere, gradually building both altitude and velocity over the space of several days, until it's in orbit. There, it can play with the tenuous headwind to ascend some more, keep station, or descend as gracefully as it rose.
This isn't just literal pie-in-the-sky hand-waving. Powell's company, JP Aerospace, has actually built many of the components of his vision, some under US military contract. He's pursuing a slow but steady experimental program that is intended to pay for itself at every step. His vision is rational and even economically plausible. Financially, I'd be more inclined to invest in it than in the elevator, because even if the final ascender doesn't work, technologies like the black sky station could be huge money-makers.
All this is cool. Unfortunately, as a document Floating to Space needs to be convincing, and it falls short in several key respects. It's well packaged by Apogee, but was apparently never edited: the text is rife with typos, grammatical errors and just plain bad writing. These issues severely weaken the sense of authority that a book proposing something so radical needs to project. I won't fault Powell for this, but I'm definitely slamming Apogee for doing a piss-poor job here.
Also, although Powell does a pretty good job of describing the technologies and solutions that would make his vision possible, he glosses over some potential show-stoppers. For instance, it takes some digging to find out that current supersonic models indicate that his orbital ascender would face impossible levels of drag, rendering the idea dead in the water (or air). This may be a deficiency of the models rather than reality--but Powell needed to address this issue head-on, and give some idea of how big a risk this places on the whole program. His failure to come clean on this one issue makes me suspicious of all the rest of his claims, and therefore creates a serious credibility problem.
I love Powell's ideas, but I can't evaluate their feasibility. I recognize that to some extent he can't either; actual experiments are needed. But if I had a hundred million lying around to invest in something, this book wouldn't make me want to invest it in JP Aerospace. --Neither does the website, incidentally, which looks amateurish. All of which is a shame, because I do think these ideas need to be explored, because at the very least the black sky station--a stable city sitting atop the atmosphere, where the sky is permanently black--is a stunning concept that could become a lucrative tourist and research destination. It deserves investment, and Powell's other ideas deserve some investigation.
Floating to Space deserves to be bought and read, too. It deserves, in fact, better than it's likely to get.