Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Cluster ballooning

Ever since American truck driver Larry Walters (1949-1993) made his legendary ascent in a lawn chair in 1982 (5th image, using his CB radio), a handful of intrepid souls have been compelled to sail away attached to helium-filled weather balloons. Walters reached an altitude of 16,000 feet over Long Beach, California, and was reported by 2 commercial airline pilots. After his hazardous descent into some power lines, he was fined by the Federal Aviation Administration and never tried the same trick again. Those who succeed him follow FAA guidelines and make headlines by exceeding personal goals or world records - or by failing entirely. American convenience store owner Kent Couch, 48, fell short of his goal of drifting from Oregon to Idaho in 2007, but succeeded in 2008 (2nd and 4th images). American licensed pilot Jonathan Trappe, 36, made the longest free-floating balloon flight (1,214 miles in 14 hours) in April (1st image) and became the 1st person to cross the English Channel by this method in May. American actuary and hot air balloonist John Ninomiya (2nd image) has made dozens of successful flights. But things didn't go so well for Brazilian priest Padre Adelir Antonio de Carli (1966-2008), who made news when he went missing trying to break a cluster balloon record and again when his body was found floating in the Atlantic Ocean (6th image).

Personally, I think hot air ballooning is the more responsible technique, especially having just learned that we will almost certainly be facing a helium shortage. Helium is extracted from the earth as a byproduct of natural gas. With great quantities concentrated under the American Great Plains, the U.S. has been the leading supplier of the gas, which was collected in a reserve that Congress authorized phasing out by 2015. Though the surplus is expected to continue for the near future, the world's supply of helium is expected to be depleted within the next 30 years. Its use has skyrocketed because so many industrial processes - producing MRI machines, fiberoptics, LCDs, and food; pressurizing rockets; and welding - rely on it. “Once it is released into the atmosphere, say, in the form of party balloons, it is lost to the Earth forever,” says a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics. What took 4.7 billion years to create will be dissipated in a little more than 100 years. Helium is non-renewable, there are no synthetic alternatives, and it is cost-prohibitive to recycle, so our alternative is to conserve. I wasn't going to take up cluster ballooning, but now I'll find an alternative to those party balloons...

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