2022-05-02 7 min read


Notes, 2022-05-02.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, air and gas ballooning was on the cutting edge of aeronautics and scientific experimentation. Excitement and anxiety around this new technology had parallels with the modern space narrative: ballooning was an exciting new technology for some, while for others, it was symptomatic of the emerging commercial society. At this time France was afflicted with balloonomania, a popular fad of watching balloon launches and following the feats of aeronauts. The early days of ballooning were incredibly risky: one might pass out in the thin atmosphere, crash land, or light on fire as many balloons used hydrogen. Public performances drew huge crowds who waited in suspense as the balloon slowly inflated with hydrogen, produced on-site by sulfuric acid reacting with iron filings. It was not uncommon for there to be balloon riots, where spectators would rip apart performers' balloons if they were disappointed by the show or the balloon failed to launch. In an 1864 balloon launch, a riot broke out when the crowd suspected Henry Coxwell’s balloon was not his largest and newest, as he had boasted.

One of the most striking images of the time is Sophie Blanchard’s final flight. Blanchard was a French performer and professional aeronaut who captured the hearts of many, including Napoleon, who appointed her as “chief air minister of ballooning” to work on plans for an aerial invasion of England. These plans never came to fruition, as she sadly died during her final flight over Tivoli Gardens in Paris. The flight was part of her beloved weekly aerial pyrotechnic shows from her gondola balloon, where she ascended into the sky in a flowing white dress with ostrich feathers, carrying a torch. She began the spectacle by dropping fireworks in parachutes that floated through the sky, and one accidentally caught her hydrogen balloon and she burst into flames above the city.

- lee wilkins

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~13% of opens) was a pencil that can allegedly draw a 16 km line before it needs to be sharpened. In the Members' Slack, we've been banding together to find solutions for CNCing granite. In the Members' Reading Group this week, we're starting Vaclav Smil's Made in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing. Join us, won't you?

Planning & Strategy.

  • When John Glenn first orbited Earth in 1962, photography was an afterthought and purely experimental. He brought an Ansco Autoset 35 mm camera from the corner store and snapped this photo of the horizon of the Earth from space. After the success of Glenn’s photo, Hasselblad partnered with NASA to design specialty equipment. The cameras had to be extremely sturdy, working in temperatures over 120° C in the sun, and below -65° C in the shade. All of the film magazines and lenses had black anodized surfaces to eliminate reflections, and of course, the mechanism had to be easy to use inside a pressure suit. The astronauts only set the distance, lens aperture, and shutter speed; the exposure, film winding, and shutter tension was done automatically. Throughout the Apollo missions, many cameras were used and this far-UV range camera is my favorite.
  • The Handbook of Homemade Power, published in 1974, is a practical guide to using wood, water, wind, solar, and methane to power your home. The guide is somewhat dated, but still has very useful information on how to build your own water wheel and basic principles of axemanship. Another great take on alternative energy (which is admittedly less practical) is this solar CNC machine which magnifies the sun to burn the material.
  • Scientific and military ballooning projects continued into the 20th century. In 1931, aeronaut Auguste Piccard ascended 15,971 meters into the stratosphere in a pressurized cabin he had built by a beer cask factory. Piccard also traveled to the depths of the ocean in a submarine he called a bathyscaph which he writes about in his 1956 book Earth, Sky, and Sea, and was an early visual observer of the curvature of the Earth. In the 1950s, the United States Air Force launched Project Manhigh, the less-known balloon-based predecessor to the Mercury missions’ human spaceflight experiments. Balloonist duo Vera and Otto Winzin produced early polyethylene balloons that were sent into the stratosphere by the US military.

Making & Manufacturing.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

NASA’s Spaceflight Human-Systems Standard describes how to accommodate the human experience in painful detail. The document is dense, but my favorite part is this drab description of food:

The crew’s willingness to consume these nutrients is impacted by the variety and flavor of the food. Food can lose its acceptance if eaten too frequently, so a variety of foods may offer a solution. The form, texture, and flavor of food are also important for adding variety, as long as nutritional content is not affected.
The dynamics of spaceflight present numerous challenges to food acceptability. A NASA food item measuring an overall acceptability rating of 6.0 or better on a 9-point hedonic scale [a scale of food acceptability] for the duration of the mission is considered acceptable.

On the other end of the digestive tract, human spaceflight has always had difficulties. Even SpaceX’s recent Inspiration 4 crew had some toilet trouble. Early bathroom solutions included a urine collection device, worn as a belt, and the ever-unpopular Apollo-era Fecal Containment Device - effectively a plastic bag with an adhesive strip at the opening. Once complete, the astronauts had to empty a germicide pouch into the bag, mix it around, and add it to the 95+ bags of human waste left on the moon; the whole endeavor took about 45 minutes and wasn’t always successful. There are currently two toilets aboard the ISS, including a toilet installed in October 2020 (to be tested thoroughly close to Earth before use in any deep space missions). It's never been easy to keep clean in space, and there is no shower on the ISS. There was one on the 1973 Skylab station, although unfortunately, it was inconvenient and difficult to use.

Distribution & Logistics.

  • Space colony enthusiast and physicist Gerard O’Neil’s Physics Today article The Colonization of Outer Space, detailing how humans might build a self-sustaining habitat, was the inspiration for the first issue of L5 News, published in 1975. The L5 Society was a place for discussion and research and involved renowned scientists creating proposals like this detailed plan for building solar powered satellites out of lunar materials. The L5 society’s most notable achievement was a 1980 campaign against the Moon Treaty’s proposed private property ownership laws, which would make the dream of space settlements difficult. This archive of the L5 newsletter features an amazing record of the discussion surrounding the problems of space colonization, technical concepts, and political debates.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.

  • An extremely thorough US Navy log of pre-1960 balloon flights, which features a plethora of seeds, mice, hamsters, and anesthetized cats.
  • Lately, I’ve been obsessed with looking at the contents of my freshwater fish tank through my microscope and cataloging the microorganisms I find. This website has a database of copepods, currently logging over 11,556 accepted species, which are fabulously unique.


Phantom midge larva, photographed by Anne Algar using polarized light microscopy.

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