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Balloon diary

Updated Friday, 2nd June 2006
It's just a lot of hot air, really, but the balloon goes up for the Science Shack Team while Adam Hart-Davis gets a lift from their latest project.

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Adam Hart-Davis and some blimps 19th November
Tomorrow, Adam will be at the airship hangars at Cardington, Bedford. Here he and the team hope to build a flying machine out of paper to carry his weight. Along the way Adam will find the answer to the question 'What is the biggest thing that can fly?' and some amazing facts about flight.

These massive hangars were built during the First World War to house gigantic airships, copies of the famous German Zeppelins. By 1930 the British airship industry collapsed after a ship called the R101 (built here) crashed into a hillside in France.

The Germans continued to build airships until the Hindenberg airship caught fire while landing in New Jersey. Sixty-two of the ninety-seven passengers aboard survived and the exact cause is still disputed today. But the damage was done. Passengers felt that airships were too dangerous.

However, today airships are back in business - as advertising hoardings, mine sweeping systems, low flying satellites and even for traffic surveillance. Today members of the Shanghai traffic police are at Cardington to learn all about the airship they have commissioned from the company ATG Ltd who now do a booming trade in airships here.

The team is hard at work amongst the Christmas decorations at their hotel cutting a template for the 17 metre tall paper balloon they hope to launch Adam aloft with. Science Shack builders Jem and Chris are looking a bit challenged by all these reams of paper. Nothing to drill, weld or chamfer, yet? Will all this origami make them into softies?

20th November
Glenn Davidson, paper sculptor, rolls out the paper for the balloon with the help of the Science Shack team inside the aircraft hangar. Glenn is helping the team because he produces magnificent paper sculpture-cum-installation-cum events in public spaces and is an expert at handling Big Paper Projects - like this one.

He has a computer model for building any shape you like. Each section of paper necessary to make up the balloon shape is marked out using measurements calculated by his programme. It's a bit like the shapes on a dress pattern.

At the other end of the hangar a box has arrived with Aeroflot stamped on the outside. Inside it is one MIR space station (used) cosmonaut's suit. It belongs to Colin Prescott who hopes, next summer, to break the world record for altitude in a balloon. He and his colleague Andy Elson are going right to the edge of the atmosphere where the only way they will survive the cold and the lack of oxygen is in a space suit.

Adam helps Colin get into his space suit. Unfortunately he has been sent his rather smaller colleague's suit by mistake so there is a little shoving and pushing to do to get him into it.

Adam discovers that the altitude record was last broken in 1961 by two US navy officers doing research on pressure suits for the space programme. They reached 113,000 feet. Colin and Andy hope to get to 135,000 feet. If they reach this height they will be virtually unbeatable - every extra foot requires a huge increase in capacity in the balloon and is simply impractical. Temperatures are a cool 80 degrees below zero. They will be sitting on a high tech but open platform wrapped up warm with very special duvets. At that height - with no air to make sound waves, they cannot hear each other speak so will need to communicate with radios from inside their space suits.

Qinetiq (the name of their balloon and their sponsor) will be 1200 feet tall (seven times the height of Nelson's Column - by now an official international unit of height) and be lifted by helium. 'The only way to describe it is that it is like a giant condom - with a bubble on the end' says Colin. As the balloon rises up the shape fills out as the inert helium gas expands to fill the balloon.

Adam asks Colin where space begins. There is no real answer to this and it is disputed - (how can you measure this exactly?) - but in the USA space officially begins at 100,000 feet - making this the first manned British space flight!


Student volunteers build the airship

November 20th - after noon
Glenn and the Science Shack team are about to lay down the last of the 32 sections of paper - known technically as 'gores' - which will make up the 17 metre high balloon - 17 metres calculated (by the Science Shack team) to be the minimum necessary to lift Adam off the ground.

Precision engineering is crucial as the team draws onto the paper using the template devised last night. They will all be cut one on top of the other. Then stuck together using sticky paper. No one here has ever made a balloon before - let alone on a Science Shack budget and using electric heaters to fill the balloon with hot air.

Chris, the Science Shack masterbuilder, welder, grinder and rivet popper, had looked a bit queasy about the prospect of doing 'all this origami' but he has taken to the paper like a duck to water - or is that like a Labrador to the toilet roll?

Adam is handed a radio controlled helium balloon which he is enchanted by. But as he looks at it he calculates that his paper balloon will have to have a ton of mass in it to give him the buoyancy he needs to be airborn (remember - a balloon weighs nothing or has negative weight in the air - but it definitely has mass - in a vacuum it would certainly tip the scales).

Director Paul Bader adopts the radio controlled balloon as a pet but is already starting to worry about taking it out to the park every day.

The Science Shack balloon starts to take shape (or at least the panels do). 32 of these, stuck together and filled with hot air, SHOULD lift Adam off the ground.

Jonathan has built his own prototype balloon to test out. He blows hot air inside it with a paint stripper and the balloon is just able to stay aloft. But the big enemy is the heat loss from the surface of the balloon. Jonathan still has to think of a way of pumping enough air into the full sized balloon.

Building a huge paper balloon takes time! So Producer Jonathan has charmed some Bedford students into helping stick the panels together.

'Angle grinder' Chris has turned into a delicate craftsman. Here he tests out a folded paper wing in preparation for tomorrow's great paper plane experiment.

Adam has been making paper planes and throwing them around the hangar - appealing to all of us to look at his great designs. No one is paying him much attention so he gives up and goes back to his newspaper. It'll soon be time to get back to the hotel and get some kip in preparation for another long day tomorrow.


Damien discovers the explosive hydrogen-oxygen mix

November 21st before noon
Believe it or not the Science Shack team and the Bedford student volunteers are still sticking bits of paper together to make the hot air balloon which they hope will lift Adam off the ground. They are battling the damp air - which is making the paper soggy, inexperience at sticking techniques, and above all time. Challenge Anneka was never this tense - this HAS to be finished by the end of the day or we are all out of a JOB.

Adam leaves the Science Shack team with their sticky-back paper and explains to camera some of the facts about making large flying objects. He gets carried away again, making paper darts and 'planes.

Adam's huge plane defies science Reminiscing about his misspent youth, he appears to be transported back into the mists of time as, childlike, he loudly informs all around him how inordinately proud he is of his paper dart designs.

Adam shows that the bigger the plane the more floppy the wings making it less able to fly well. Amazingly this ultra floppy model manages to fly extremely well - much to the disappointment of the surrounding scientists.

Science Shack team member 'Wicked' Damien elegantly mixes his secret soap bubble mixture to help Adam carry out some 'don't do this at home' experiments explaining some facts about balloon flight.

Adam has a hand held device with taps for hydrogen and oxygen on them. When he blows an oxygen bubble it falls off the end of his specially adapted tube. Proving without a shadow of a doubt that oxygen is not going to help Adam's balloon get airborne.

Adam now blows hydrogen into the soap bubble mixture and bubbles wizz upwards as soon as they are formed. All very sweet and lovely. But hydrogen is not the best gas to use for flying…

Adam's hydrogen bubbles burst into flame as they rise and pass through the gas burner's flame. The infamous German Hindenberg airship met its end in 1937 because it was hydrogen filled and caught fire. So we won't be filling Adam's balloon with hydrogen.

Adam creates some fire We could fill it with helium but it is rather expensive! Helium is a very common gas in nature - but difficult to synthesise. When airships were first made in the 1920s helium could only be found in American natural gas - and the Americans kept strict control on world supplies. Today we get a lot of helium from the Czech Republic

Because this is Science Shack, and we have the technology, Damien is given leave to find out the explosive (actually implosive) qualities of a mix of hydrogen and oxygen. He lets a little oxygen into a soap bubble, then some hydrogen. Anticipating a big bang he doesn't dare put his bubble near enough to the flame.

Damien's mixed gas bubble hits the flame and goes GNAB!!! very loudly (it implodes as air rushes into the bubble and ignites).

Damien checks he still has his hard hat after the explosion - which Director Paul Bader explains was a perfectly safe experiment because it is an implosion rather than an explosion. Much as we trust his every word and respect his greater knowledge of science, we will also make sure Adam's balloon doesn't include this mix.


The balloon starts to inflate

November 21st after noon
While the Science Shack team, local students and sympathetic helpers from ATG Ltd who build airships in this hangar help stick the balloon panels together, Adam tests out some unlikely paper plane designs. One is made of a tube of paper with two big tubes glued around it. And it flies!

The epic balloon panel sticking period is over. Now comes the really hard bit – getting the balloon into position and filling it with hot air. A strong wind is blowing into the hangar so we have to move it 200 yards to the other end of the building. That also means moving hundreds of yards of paper we have laid to cover the floor this end to protect the balloon from grit.

Producer Jonathan has decided we need a real balloon professional with us and manages to rustle up Stuart, one of Britain’s few dozen qualified balloon pilots. He has come armed with a proper flame thrower which should put enough heat into our balloon to get it airborn.

At this point, unfortunately, your lazy web correspondent gets roped into actually doing some useful work helping finish the balloon. This means that there are no exciting pictures of the making of stay ‘ropes’ out of sticky back fibre glass plastic and paper; the arguments about how we are actually going to attach Adam to this thing; the Producer’s brainwave of deciding to call for a fire engine to stand by, just in case; the carrying of the balloon all the way down the hangar (a very delicate, almost funereal, operation); the discovery that the other end of the hangar is very damp, the moving of plastic matting to the other end of the hangar; the discussions as to how much cold air to blow into the balloon before the hot air…

The process of inlfation gets underway The balloon is laid out and a cold air fan is attached to it to blow it into shape before the hot air is blasted into it. Stuart tests out his massive balloon heating flame. We are all very relieved (especially the man from ATG who builds the airships in the hangar) that the fire brigade will be with us.

The balloon is starting to take shape. Adam – like most of the rest of us far from sure that a paper balloon was a realistic proposition – realises now that he may indeed find himself dangling off this thing. How he is going to be attached to the balloon is for the Science Shack team a minor detail at the moment. They will cross that bridge, jump that hurdle, build that contraption, when they get to it.

We decide that if a conspiracy theorist peered through a gap in the wall of this hangar and saw this extraordinary sight there would be another Rosswell Incident on the world’s hands.

Meanwhile the giant balloon turns from slug-like beast into a creature we are all starting to fall in love with.

Glenn is taken aloft in a crane to delicately adjust the tapes which hang from the top of the balloon. It is crucial they do not pull on the outside of the balloon and break it open.

The balloon starts to roll ominously. Glenn gets underneath it to coax the panels outwards as they fill with air.

Jonathan heroically dives under the balloon to effect rescue operations on folds which need unfolding under the balloon.

The balloon is almost ready for Stuart the balloon pilot to get inside and heat up with his flame.

Tune in to find out what happens next...


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