Friday, July 11, 2008

Toward A Future With a Little More Elegance

Last week, the New York Times had an article about a resurgence of interest in airships. Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei, which is the successor to the company that operated the infamous Hindenberg, has been successfully running operations with sightseeing tours over southern Germany.

Airships were popular in the 1930's. Interest waned in them after several disasters. The best-known was, of course, the LZ 129 Hindenberg, which was destroyed in a fire while landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937. What is less known is that the end of the airship age was also hastened by the destruction of two American military airships, the ZRS-4 USS Akron on April 4, 1933 and the ZRS-5 USS Macon on February 12, 1935. All three ships were of "rigid" designs-- they had aluminum skeletons inside. All three had mitigating factors in their destruction, warranting a re-examination of the concepts of airships, which have some significant advantages over winged aircraft.

As discussion over weaning ourselves off of hydrocarbon fuels goes on, use of hydrogen as a fuel keeps coming up. The Hindenberg disaster has made people wary of hydrogen. The image of the Hindenberg burning and the radio report of its destruction have become cultural icons. Yet, hydrogen may have gotten a bad rap.

A few years ago, Addison Bain, a retired NASA employee with a long-time interest in the disaster, the cause of which has never been solved, came up with an interesting theory. He was able to obtain an actual piece of the skin of the Hindenberg and analyze it. He discovered that the skin was fabric covered in cellulose acetate butyrate "dope," which was impregnated with iron oxide and aluminum powder. He realized that he'd seen this before, when he worked for NASA. It was very similar to the formula for the fuel for solid rocket boosters. In other words, the Hindenberg was filled with a flammable gas and covered with rocket fuel.

The Macon and the Akron, on the other hand, were filled with helium, an inert gas. Why hadn't the Hindenberg been filled with the much safer gas? The United States, the main producer of helium, refused to sell the gas to Nazi Germany.

What, then, destroyed the Akron and the Macon? The weather. Both were destroyed in storms that damaged their control surfaces.

Overall, airships had a good safety record. Germany operated about 100 airships for some time, losing only the Hindenberg. After the Hindenberg disaster, they changed the formula for the skin of the airships, which some people take as a tacit admission that the problem was the skin and not just the hydrogen.

Why airships? In his book "Heat," George Monbiot examines our energy future and concludes that in a future that avoids global warming, use of airplanes will be limited. What, then, is the advantage of airships over airplanes? Certainly not speed; an airship goes about 80 miles per hour, versus 200-600 miles per hour for an jet airplane. The difference is in energy efficiency. While an airplane uses much of its energy merely to keep its enormous weight aloft, in addition to propulsion, an airship gets its buoyancy from the gas. Its fuel use is solely for propulsion.

Regarding safety, the technology for weather prediction in the 1930's was nearly non-existent. It's not perfect now, but it's infinitely better than in the 1930's, with satellites, doppler radar and other tools-- undoubtedly enough to keep an airship from flying into a storm severe enough to destroy it.

But I believe its not just the energy efficiency and the consequent gentleness toward our planet that make the airship part of our future.

In the wonderful 1998 miniseries "From The Earth To The Moon," there's an episode called "Galileo Was Right." In one scene, there's a big, long meeting between NASA administrators, NASA scientists and astronauts over where to land Apollo 15. After many hours of discussions and arguments, involving issues of science, safety and experience, astronaut Dave Scott finally settles the argument, advocating a landing at the Hadley-Apenine Plain, a riskier landing, full of unknowns, but besides a greater potential for greater scientific discovery, it has one other advantage over the alternatives: grandeur. There's something to be said, he says, for exploring beautiful places.

On the way home from dinner with some friends tonight, Kim and I were talking about the news today-- the huge problems-- financial, energy, military-- that are coming to roost. This next thirty years are, its becoming clear, are our last chance to create a viable future. We are determining, right now, what kind of world our children will live in.

In 1912, there was a historic strike in Lawrence, Massachussets. Lawrence, Massachussetts was the center of the United States' textile industry. In a strike led by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or the Wobblies, workers, united across ethnic, racial and gender lines, marched under the banner "Bread and Roses Too." This slogan impressed me enough that I had it included, in Spanish, into my tattoo when I got it many years ago. I love the meaning-- that its not enough that we have what we need materially, but what we need spiritually. We need beauty, creativity and spark.

Reading the New York Times article the other day, a picture really grabbed me. It was a picture, below, of one of the aforementioned sightseeing tours over southern Germany. The new airships hold the promise of energy-efficient, safe modes of travel in the future, but the picture also had one other thing-- whimsy. I had a vision of riding quietly over a beautiful landscape, enjoying the scenery.

At 47, I've almost certainly got more years behind me than ahead of me. That and the fact that my oldest child is approaching adulthood, as well as losing one of my closest friends a couple of years ago, has really made me think about the future, both near and distant, and what I and my generation leave behind.

The fork in the path couldn't be clearer. What do we leave behind? A sustainable, creative, fulfilling-- and even elegant-- future, or a harsh, dirty, cold one, filled with a mix of a little extreme wealth and lots of grinding poverty, unfulfilled potential and violence? Is there any question?


Ute said...

'Poetry in motion' - creative writing, spiritual wisdom, ambition and airships - a perfect blend. But then again, I would say that, wouldn't I? :-)

SkylersDad said...

I didn't know that about the skin being rocket fuel! Wow!!

Hey, I nominated you for an award over at my place!

Barbara Bruederlin said...

My cousin, who is a German aerospace engineer, once sent me some amazing postcards of some German airships. I still have them tacked onto my filing cabinet.

Wandering Coyote said...


Just wanted to stop by and acquaint myself with your blog after your visit to mine.

I see you've adopted BD Wong - I love him! He's one of the reasons I love Law & Order: SVU so much!

dmarks said...

I have a small collection of German airship photos.. some I picked up in Munich.

However, in regards to "Overall, airships had a good safety record. Germany operated about 100 airships for some time, losing only the Hindenberg."

Several years ago, I read a history of airships, and I remmber photos of several crashed/destroyed German airships prior to the Hindenberg.

Mathman6293 said...

Interesting post. I think that you are right about making good choices for the future.

Cap'n Ergo Jinglebollocks said...

help me out here: what's the diff. between:

an airship
a blimp
a Zepplin
a derrigible

Wait, remove Zepplin: that's got an internal skeleton in the bag. But what about the other ones?

While you're at it, what's the diff between:

a hot dog
a weenie
a franfurter??

Mnmom said...

I saw the same special about the skin of the Hindenburg - fascinating.
I like the philosophy that every decision we make today should take the next seven generations into account.

Erik Donald France said...

Beautifully articulated, comrade.

I love zeppelins and other airships!

FranIAm said...

You are such a talented writer, with sensitivity, humility, great insights and wisdom Johnny Yen.

How grateful am I to know you in this bloggy world.

I simply love this post and that is all I will say for today!

STPTT said...

Excellent post Brian.
My grandfather actually saw the Hindenburg flying over Cologne.
It is a shame that this fascinating means of transport has been relegated to the sidelines.
Around 2000 a German company called Cargolifter actually planned on building giant freight airships but sadly could not muster sufficient funding.

Johnny Yen said...

Aha-- you're the one behind this! Well done! Thanks for adding to the beauty of the world.

Skyler's Dad-
Pretty amazing isn't it? Pretty amazing that it took over 60 years to figure this out!

Thanks for the award! I'm working on my list.

Those postcards might be something that would be interesting to post!

Wandering Coyote-
Welcome to Casa De Yen! Don't be a stranger!

I totally get sucked into that show! I call it the 30 second rule-- if I watch thirty seconds of an episode, I'm hooked!

I'm sure there were other accidents, probably due to weather.

We have probabaly hit a peak in petroleum extraction. It's interesting that the projections for rapid decline in oil production and the beginnings of serious problems from global warming are around the same time-- thirty years from now. Maybe someone's trying to tell us something.

Captain Jinglebollocks-
A blimp has no internal skeleton, a dirigible does. Dirigible is a generic name for Zeppelin. Both blimps and dirigibles are airships.

You're on your own about the sausages (they're also called red hots, aren't they?)

I like that philosophy too.

A couple of generations from now, they look back at our generation in a mix of curiosity, digust and amazement that we took petroleum, which took hundreds of millions of years to form and used it to power three ton Hummers.


I feel the same about finding your blog!

That's very cool about your grandfather!

I remember reading about that endeavor. The article in the New York Times said that other companies have been successful in similar activites-- airships are uniquely suited for such applications.

Bubs said...

A beautiful piece of writing. As to your question:

"What do we leave behind? A sustainable, creative, fulfilling-- and even elegant-- future, or a harsh, dirty, cold one, filled with a mix of a little extreme wealth and lots of grinding poverty, unfulfilled potential and violence?"

Well...I'm hoping for the former and preparing for the latter.