Floating to Space: The Airship to Orbit Program

  • Published

Floating to Space: The Airship to Orbit Program by John M. Powell. Apogee Books, 2008, 204 pp. 

Imagine this—you are sitting in a 900-foot craft, waiting for your first trip to near space; the countdown hits zero, and you hear silence as you lift off from Earth and float toward the heavens. You think to yourself, How can this be possible? Where are the rumbling rockets? Where is the controlled explosion thrusting me violently skyward? Fortunately for you, the answers are in your front-seat pocket, in John Powell’s book Floating to Space. Through a clever combination of textbook-like explanations threaded with fictional storylines, the author takes an “out there” concept and turns it into an interesting and somewhat compelling argument for his aspirational “Airship to Orbit” program (p. 12). As founder and president of JP Aerospace, known affectionately to Powell as “the other space program,” he has spent almost four decades developing and testing concepts to get humans to 240,000 feet using—here’s the kicker—nothing but balloons.

Floating to Space gives the reader a deep look into the Airship to Orbit concept by giving easy-to-understand insight into each aspect of the infant program. Three balloon craft will take passengers or materiel up to the mesosphere. A large balloon takes the payload up to a 2-mile-wide balloon at 140,000 feet above the ground, which acts as a hub for hypersonic travel to a near-space orbit in a 1-mile-wide balloon (p. 13). Confused? The purpose of Powell’s book is to clarify and defend his concept that is built around one simple scientific fact: lifting one pound of anything to space requires the same amount of energy whether it gets there fast or slow. His innovative idea is to overcome this physical rule by using alternative space travel methods that drag out energy expenditure across days instead of minutes, thereby increasing the efficiency and safety of space travel. To illustrate, Powell uses examples such as the first “rocket ship” allegedly built by Wan Hu in China during the early 1500s and the more recent costly, dangerous space shuttle missions that required perfection in every way. He believes that, instead of sitting on a rocket and lighting a match, using balloons is an all-around better method to get to space.

To defend his thesis, he organizes the book in a unique and somewhat entertaining manner. He starts by using dramatic but somewhat unbelievable comparisons to prove his point, much like comparing Wan Hu’s rocket chair to contemporary spacecraft. Unfortunately, he put this right at the beginning, immediately introducing the opportunity for skepticism. He quickly switches gears and starts a fictional narrative about his son taking a romanticized balloon trip to space. These short chapters are interspersed throughout the book and offer the reader an imaginary, yet relatable, picture of what the experience might be like. Between these respites, scattered throughout his diatribe of reasoning and defense, Powell walks through all the parts and pieces required and, more importantly, the science behind each phase of his three-part trip to space. These short, to-the-point explanations about how each piece of the Airship to Orbit program would be integrated are easy to understand and give an air of feasibility.

Then the complex reality of the program is unveiled as he delves into the significant research and infrastructure required to get the whole idea off the ground—pun intended. He leans heavily on future concepts and technology that have yet to be developed. In his defense, he admits to this by the end of the book. Still, he proceeds to rationalize it away with rhetoric about innovation, leading the reader to believe that anything is possible if required for a concept. There are likely some propulsion and aerospace engineers out there who would have concerns regarding what he describes as possible. Another—although be it a more camouflaged—shortcoming is that he writes the book assuming that everyone and their mother will want his product. He never narrows his focus to a targeted audience but merely expresses his belief that everyone wants to go to space and that the value gained from research, tourism, and manufacturing will be well worth his program’s cradle-to-grave costs. These broad assumptions dilute his argument by inferring everyone will want the program, and it will most definitely get funded by someone—but he does not even venture to guess by whom. Lastly, he continuously compares near-space travel to conventional aircraft travel but never quite answers one big question: what happens if the pressure vessel people are traveling in gets a hole in it? In other words, what stops people’s cells from exploding and blood from boiling when an accident occurs that exposes them to the environment of near space? This scenario is not as big a problem in the lower atmosphere. Still, it should be of primary concern when talking about “taking it slow” and hanging out for long periods at altitudes up to 45 miles above Earth’s surface. 

Powell’s novel idea to use balloons to get into a near-space orbit, and beyond, is intriguing. If proven possible and pursued in the future, this technology could be a game-changer for the Defense Department. It would significantly alter the way we think about intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, logistics, contingency response, weapons delivery, communications, and a myriad of other critical competencies. Perhaps most importantly, Powell’s book highlights a critical gap between air and space domains. For this reason alone, it should be of interest to strategists and forward thinkers looking for ideas to gain a competitive edge—such as operating in the stratosphere. For those aerospace tech nerds who love to learn about new and crazy ideas, with its simple organization and plenty of pictures, this book is a great option for a leisure read. However, if you are looking for hard data regarding the feasibility of using balloons to get to space or are looking for a thick plot with twists and turns, you might as well look elsewhere, because you won’t find either here.

 Maj Chris J. Gallegos, USAF




"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."