Saturday, December 31, 2011

Departure / Detachment

Just a beautiful piece of music from Gattaca. It takes significant effort to detach from the usual cares of the world and spend time engaged in other domains of thought. Many people can't or won't, and they are the ones, the majority, who will always argue that emigrating to space will be too expensive, dangerous or simply pointless. It takes a strong effort to remember that you have to ignore those voices, and keep moving. Those people will say the same thing even as the first colonies past Pluto are flourishing, and even as a civilization-killing comet moves inexorably towards the Earth. Those voices, really, are already extinct.

Below the music link...a rough screen grab of the book title page...Very, very close to being done, now!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Another small piece of the puzzle; hold-down straps to keep me in place when seated and the suit is pressurized. A patch on the suit is gluing for a week under pressure at the moment...After that, I think it's ready for the test.

Moving Beyond Earth

I agree with Steven Hawking: "Humanity's future relies on moving beyond Earth. As long as we are confined to one planet, the existence of our species will always be in question."

Monday, December 26, 2011


A few details remaining; I've sealed up a slow leak that has bedeviled me for ages, and I think tomorrow a 'dry' inflation to be sure that leak is finished with. The solution to it is simple, and it's no big concern because I know exactly what and where it is.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Saturday, December 24, 2011


Above, the instrument panel, bristling, now, growing items like barnacles. I've taped life-size mockups of the VHF radio panel (narrow & horizontal) and aviation band transceiver (narrow and vertical radio with antenna) to the setup to start thinking about how much room I need for everything. This entire mockup will be taken apart and rebuilt into a functional cockpit layout later, but for the moment the idea is to make sure it all works together, learn the electrics issues (need to add solar panels for power) and start deciding where to place everything such that it all goes where I can see it all and access the various switches. I've added an LED voltmeter;t he analog voltmeter next to the main power switch will be replaced with a better voltmeter and matching ammeter. While the LED voltmeter is easy to read, at low temps the display will fail, so I don't have much use for it, really, though it draws so little power that I might keep it as an optional backup. I've also added my trusty ship's compass, near the bottom of the 'stack', which guided me across the Vatnajokull ice cap and across the Alaskan tundra and sea ice in two expeditions...I wouldn't think of leaving it behind! Tomorrow, Christmas day--a day for six hours' writing, and then straight on to continue with this system!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Water Landing Checklist

A first shot at a Water Landing checklist. This is a mockup, based on some FAA suggestions for water-landing of a balloon. I'll make many iterations of such checklists over the next year or so, as I prepare for a first flight in, I think, 2013. I'm not sure which checklists will be on my forearms--probably the most likely and important--and which will be mounted in the cockpit in some way that makes them accessible and unambiguous. I looked at a book on cockpit design last year, fascinating material regarding lettering, colors, placement of warnings and so on, and I'll revisit that later. For the moment, a mockup--a real flight checklist I used in paraglider flight training is here, where I'm about 800 feet above ground in Eastern Washington, setting up my landing phases.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Light and Suit Coolant Pump Tests

Knocked out ten pages of text, then turned to an hour or so on the system; installed a proper lighting system--a red (to save night vision) low-energy LED array--and ran the suit coolant pump for a while, connected to the suit, watching for leaks. And there were no leaks!

Monday, December 19, 2011

In Open Space

A great clip from Al Reinert's film, 'For All Mankind.'

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Hollow Men

It doesn't get much better than T.S. Eliot himself, reading 'The Hollow Men', transcribed below.

The Hollow Men


We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
Remember us -- if at all -- not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.


Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death's dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind's singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death's dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer --

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom


This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man's hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death's other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.


The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death's twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.


Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o'clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Mask Microphone Test

Made a quick test of the oral-nasal mask mike, which will be used to communicate with whomever I can bribe into helping me with the suit test; the microphone, installed inside the mask (in the photo above it's just outside the mask, on an earlier test), routes communications to a regular walkie-talkie that I'll wear inside the pressure suit; when I talk into the mike, my words will be picked up by the suit assistant's walkie-talkie, and of course I'll wear earphones so I can hear them talk through their walkie-talkie. The mike sounds good enough (at least for the ground tests), as you can hear in this mp3 file. Now I need to figure out a way to permanently install the mike in the mask with an airtight fitting. For the actual flights, communications will be routed not to a walkie-talkie, of course, but to a VHF radio for communication with the ground, and/or an aviation band radio for communication with other aircraft.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


One more deadline this year -- my Introduction to Archaeology textbook, due in 2.5 weeks, which means I will be shuttling between the library, coffee shop, and home computer for precisely the next 2.5 weeks. Two chapters to add to the already-430-page monster, then all of the art to finalize, and then it's New Year's and I will take a good long breath before starting writing on the Arctic book...Right now, draw up a writing target for each of the next 17 days, and see when I can squeeze in getting the liquid oxygen and other components for the pressure suit project test...If I'm careful with my time, I might pull off a test of the suit before the New Year...three months after I thought I'd be doing it, but that's life. There are only so many hours in a day!

Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Works in Progress

Sketches of reconsideration of the electrical control box placement, and a couple of ideas for the overall balloon car design. All grading done, I now have several free weeks to make progress on the system!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Balloon Car Dimensions

The suit fitted to its seat; the black discs represent the diameter of standard 20-gal fuel tanks (6), the blue tape on the floor represents the basic balloon car (gondola) frame; the black line on the upright PVC pipes represents the height of the fuel tanks. I'm waiting for one element of the pressure suit to arrive in the mail, so today I took some time to sketch out some of the essential dimensions of the balloon car. This configuration will require total reorganization of the electrical panel and the breathing gas supply tanks & hoses, but that's fine, what I've built so far has always just been a testbed to be sure everything is working. Later tonight, back to grading, but for the moment, I'm taking a break to work out some of these basic dimensions.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Helmet Adjustment

A small task I've been meaning to take care of for months, today; rotating the helmet mount ring by a few degrees. That meant removing the ring, something I haven't done for a long time, and this broke a significant psychological barrier. With the helmet holding pressure, I was loathe to even touch the assembly, lest I reassemble it in some way that didn't hold pressure again. But the helmet seal is so simple, it _should_ be easy to disconnect and connect, and it is. Pressure test next weekend, I hope; I might even have liquid oxygen for breathing by that time, something I'm working on this coming week.

Friday, December 9, 2011

For the Christmas Season - Marley's Speech

From 'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens; some of the best writing I've ever read:

It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world...and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!...I wear the chain I forged in life...I ...made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you? Or would you know the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge...

Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Seat Mockup

In the images above, the seat mockup, using various lumber clamped with carriage bolts to a dining chair. The suit, minus helmet and gloves, is loosely set in the seat, and very close to pressure testing in a week or two. The balloon carriage (gondola) I'll build will be different from most in one main respect; I will be seated for takeoff, flight and landing, rather than standing (though on landing I do need a standing option). Since the seat will be be the foundation of the carriage, I'm starting with this mockup to get my basic dimensions, so I can start drawing up plans that will 'grow out' from the seat. The testbed in in the background, and after the pressure tests it will be disassembled and rebuilt into a functional cockpit for the carriage. The plan is for balloon flight training in 2012!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Seat Integration

In the photo above, I've built armrests and leg restraints around a dining chair that I'll use for the full-pressure, seated test of my integration with the flight instrument panel testbed. The whole instrument panel will be rebuilt after this test--an exciting project that will improve it significantly--but for the moment this is the 'proof of concept' stage, integrating me in a seated position with all of the hoses I need to support life (breathing gas in/out, suit pressurization gas in [pressure out is valve on the suit itself], suit coolant in/out, communication cables in/out) in position; not too long, not too short etc. Most of the wood used to build the armrests etc. is just wood I've found on the streets, here and there, and the carriage bolts used to connect it all, without any drilling or damage to the chair itself, cost just a few dollars at the hardware store.

Waiting for just a few last components before being ready for the full pressure test coming up, hopefully next weekend. I've pushed the date back a few times, but that's as it should be, as I'm not answerable to any equipment sponsors. I'll only look for a few sponsors once the life-support system is entirely built...and maybe not even, then, really, because from previous experience I know that expedition sponsorship = pressure, and I can't be pressured with this project, where my life is in the balance and I need to just progress on my own building schedule.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Uganda Space Plane

Currently being assembled...the plan is to fly this vehicle to an altitude of 80,000 feet; the government has promised the project about 56,000$US for the project, which is scheduled to be ready some time in 2012: link here. I wish them good luck!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Continued Sewing

Closing in on very final details now, further sewing on the pressure restraint garment after installing the coolant hose port, as seen in the top two images. It's come a long way since starting to figure this out, in Feb 2010 (final image)!

Monday, November 14, 2011

System Overview Video

Video review of the system at present:

If it doesn't show properly on the screen, you can see it in a new window, here.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Power Check

Yes -- 12+ volts and things are really coming together with the suit coolant pump running smoothly and just the smallest adjustments to make to the suit itself. But not today--this weekend I read the space book manuscript for the first time in two weeks, my coauthor and I have completely left it aside for that time to come back to it for a final editing pass with fresh eyes. Could I be ready for the full test at the end of the month? I think so! I need to recruit some helpers, as I simply can't do it alone!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Suit Coolant Epoxy Seal

Tonight I took an hour to finalize the coolant hose through-port; in the first picture, I'm mixing epoxy, with the coolant in/out hoses through the PVC fitting that will screw into the port on the suit; in the second photo, starting to pack it into the fitting, around the hoses; in the third, the fitting rotated and its second opening being packed, and in the fourth, a closeup of the rather messy, but well-packed epoxy job that I'll sand down to smooth later. When this hardens in the next 24 hours, it will make an airtight plug around the coolant hoses, so that when this fitting is screwed into the suit port hardware, pressure will not escape the fitting, around the coolant hoses. One of a dozen little jobs that are quickly coming together to be ready for an end-of-the-month full test!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Suit Coolant Pump Installed

Finally -- a functional coolant pump, hoses and connections! The two quick connections in my hand are for coolant fluid in and out; they pass through a port to be installed in the suit after I epoxy the fitting to be sure it's airtight. The clear, thin hoses will circulate body-cooling fluid through a mesh vest I'll wear inside the suit, under my thin long-john union suit. On the left, the small black module is the new, more powerful 12vDC pump (driven by the motorcycle battery on the right, which will be replaced by a car battery that I purchased today, but had to leave at the shop because a bus driver said it could be used as a weapon! I'll pick it up on Thu with a taxi). A switch on the main control panel turns the pump on and off; it will not run continuously, only when I need it. The clear plastic cylinder in the background, with the orange bands, contains the coolant fluid; just water now, but later, basically, antifreeze. Hard to believe it was November 2009 when Angela and I did the first test of the pressure suit, it's two years later and I think by the end of this month my test will see the whole system ready for a full test!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

New Graphic

Mind, Intelligence and Adaptation...a new Figure for the space book. Wrapping things up, at long, long last!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Making Towards Life

This piece, by Luigi Boccherini, makes towards life, while so much of our culture seems to make towards destruction and death. By the time we are 10 years old, the sociologists tell us, we have witnessed over 2,000 murders on television.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Flight Simulator

When I was in Barrow, Alaska a few winters ago, I visited with the Search and Rescue pilots who would be alerted if I'd been in an emergency. Touring their office, I was surprised to see one pilot seated at a PC, flying a flight simulator, like you see above. These computer programs have come so far that they're useful for pilots to keep up basic hand-eye coordination, muscle memory, and, probably most importantly, checklist procedures memory when they're not actually flying. So, now, sometimes late at night, when I can't sleep or need some item to work on the balloon project, but don't have it, I fly a flight simulator to keep me conversant with things like glancing at the altimeter to know my altitude, understanding the effects of winds (I can set clouds and winds at whatever altitudes etc. I want), and checklists; for example, in the screen grab above, I'm making my 'base' leg of the approach (which I learned in paragliding flight training) and have to keep an eye on my altitude, speed (not too fast, not too slow!), using flaps to decelerate at a certain time, my vertical speed (and whether it's positive or negative), drop landing gear at the right time, and so on as I maneuver in for a landing at dusk at an airstrip near San Francisco.
For the balloon project, the main things of relevance here are becoming familiar with the altimeter and the vertical speed indicator, both instruments on my current flight panel. Otherwise, not much here is directly relevant to flying a balloon, but there are balloon simulators out there, and I mean to get one. I will then connect that to some actuators that will activate my flight panel instruments, so that as the program runs on the computer, sitting at the controls I will be able to simulate flights while completely suited up in the pressurized pressure suit. That will be invaluable experience, just as simulator time is a major component of any pilot's training and skills maintenance.
Flying the simulator is also, I have to say, a lot of fun. I am certain that some elements make it sometimes harder to fly than an actual airplane; for example, there is no physical sensation of movement, that pilots use to help gauge what the aircraft is doing, and as good as the graphics are, depth perception is still difficult to simulate.
In the image I'm setting up landing in a twin-prop Cessna. I like twin-prop aircraft of any kind, and don't like much single-engine craft of any kind! I have been in enough of them--over Canada, Kenya, and Alaska--to realize that I don't like staking so much on just one engine!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Quick Test

Unable to focus on a piece of writing this morning, a little while ago I put on the helmet and pressurized the system. Still little bugs to iron out -- though just about anything other than perfect isn't 'little' at all -- but good to see they system come right up to good pressure and voltage. I need to seal off all the wiring after making the final connections, get the tank refilled, and make one or two adjustments to the pressure suit itself. Then, I think I'm ready for the full test.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Too Easy to Forget

The avalanche of advertising that assaults us daily often uses, in a fragmented, shredded form, some of civilization's greatest achievements. We respond to these fragments because even these bits carry a great freight of two thousand years of our civilization's sensibilities. Here is one, often stripped into parts, that we rarely get to hear in its entirety;

Bach Cello Suite 1.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Evolution Talk

A talk I'm giving tomorrow; image placed here for boring, technical reasons...but if you're interested, see you there! The talk is based on recent article, linked here.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

System Pre-Test!

Last night's pressure leak was just a loose connection, and I fixed it this morning. I then connected the electrical system, pressurized the breathing gas / suit inflation system, and turned on the master power switch. All well! The new pressure regulator works beautifully and is much easier to control, right down to even finer than 1psi increments. Pressing the inflator button on the suit worked to send gas to the suit (on the right, with the pressure restraint garment pulled aside from the connection for now) and the electrics turned on a small 'cockpit' light (on a foot-long snake neck) to help illuminate the instruments, and the voltmeter displayed the battery charge. Power is flowing through the main breaker without loss of amps downstream, and the oral-nasal mask breathing system worked to inhale breathing gas from the tank and then purge exhaled gas out the appropriate hose. It all works. Now, back to the last adjustments of the pressure restraint garment, which means more sewing, which I can only do once I get my hands on some large sailmaking needles; I finally broke the last of mine last week. This was the last one remaining from the set that Dad bought for me before the sailing raft expedition back in 1998-1999. So - very close to the full suit test, and I'm looking for people to help with that, which will include one suit manager, one power/gas system manager and one person to shoot stills and video.

But wait! One more component to build -- the suit coolant system, requiring a new fluid pump and sewing the coolant hoses into a special vest. Still -- awfully close, now, to the incredible day when I can demonstrate the viability of this system! Hoo eee! The anticipation is fantastically energizing!

Friday, October 7, 2011

New Pressure Control Unit Installed

After a departmental get-together, I rushed home to build the new pressure controller into the system; it's the unit I'm dialing with my left hand in the photo, the unit with two red hoses coming off of it. All well--until I pressurized the system. There's at least one leak somewhere, and I have to check all the connections. If they're all OK, then it's a defect in the control unit...and I'll move on to fixing that. I'll be on the fix before sunup!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Pressure Controller

Finally, the new pressure controller arrived. This steps down pressure from the breathing gas tank to the actual breathing regulator. The previous one was a little too fiddly and its intake pressure limit was a little too close to the pressure coming off of the breathing gas tank. This one, though weighing five times more than the smaller one, and more difficult to mount, is far superior, and its overall robusticity inspires confidence. I have to take it apart to be sure there's no grease in the system, as pure oxygen and grease can lead to combustion! Taking it apart and putting it back together, as I do with my SCUBA regulators, will be my best way to really understand how it works. It's better than looking at a schematic diagram, and better than looking at a video clip; nothing is better than carefully inspecting every element as I take it apart and then put it back together.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


A draft of something I'll be putting in the space book; not sure where, and it's just a draft (I'll end up editing it, probably, about four times), but there are important points that summarize some of the more important points of the book. Last 50 days of writing and editing now!

"There will always be people who feel that colonizing space will only transport our problems elsewhere. We prefer to be optimistic. The first colonists to arrive at Mars will look down on a world where not a single bullet has been fired, where not a single bomb has ever fallen from the sky. We think early colonists will be very aware of this. They might well prohibit such weapons entirely. Of course, a human being can always kill with their hands; that will not, we think, be solved. And a human being can make a weapon out of nearly any object, or even construct weapons in secret. But in a pristine world, we think, people will be determined not to repeat old madnesses, and they may be extremely intolerant of even the seeds of division, violence, and waste. In ancient Iceland, murderers and other criminals were banished to the wilderness, where life was nearly impossible. Similar rules may be enforced by early off-Earthers. And if things grow the wrong way on Mars--just as they might grow wrong on Earth even if we someday achieve universal peace--there would remain the solution that has been used by various human groups on Earth for millennia: social fission. In many cultures, it has been customary to relieve tensions by splitting up, an option almost impossible on Earth today. The science fiction writer Robert Heinlein wrote that "When things get so crowded that you need an ID, it is time to move. The great thing about space travel is that it has given us somewhere to move." For a long time, Mars will offer large landscapes for expansion; places to go if things turn badly.

And, of course, Mars is no end; one of our points in this book has been that human space colonization cannot be though of as an end, like landing on the moon nearly 50 years ago. Rather, it is a beginning. Eventually, people of Mars might want to move farther on; in fact, considering what we have learned about humanity in this book, that seems natural and inevitable, while challenging it seems unnatural. We feel that other places in the solar system, and eventually the galaxy, and eventually other galaxies, will all be explored, and some settled. Humanity, by this method of continual expansion, will have aligned itself with the nature of the universe, which is change. There is no utopia, because conditions change, and humanity itself changes. If there is a constant it is change and the evolution itself that adapts to that change. But for humanity to engage with this reality, we have to begin somewhere, and we argue that we should begin now. There will never be a best time to begin; it will always be argued that we have more pressing immediate concerns. But to focus on those immediate concerns could, in the end, cost us everything. In our daily lives, we invest heavily to protect our future, by buying insurance and minding our doings. Colonizing space will be nothing less than an insurance policy for our species and civilization. It is worth the cost and effort."

(c) 2011 by Cameron M. Smith

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Little Engine That...Couldn't

The poor little 3.8 liters per minute, 12vDC pump (small black item on the center testbed support) that I acquired to pump suit coolant through the liner suit just isn't up to the job. In my zeal to get the smallest, lightest and simplest pump available, I shot a bit low. Poor little bugger just whizzed and whined but could barely move the fluid (from the tall, clear cylindrical reservoir) though the coolant hose. I need a more powerful pump, and that's easy to get. This time I'll do a little more homework RE capacity to circulate. Small setback only, though, and again I've learned something.

The idea of the cooling system is simple; cool, non-freezing fluid (maybe antifreeze) is pumped from the reservoir through a port (that I'm holding in my hand), through tubing sewn in the suit liner, and then back out the same port and back into the reservoir. As the fluid moves through the tubing in my liner suit, it should pick up body heat and carry it outside to the very cold atmosphere, where it's cooled again, dumping that heat, before pouring back into the reservoir. I'd prefer a non-battery-reliant system, and I thought about a non-continuous manual pump (just work a lever to pump the fluid), but I figured in that event I'd just build more body heat by doing the manual pumping, so I'll stick with the 12vDC system for the moment. If I can figure out a way to find some 'free energy' based on movement of the balloon or other workings of the system, to pump fluid, great; but I haven't found that energy yet.

Looks like blogger has enabled some picture viewing 'feature' that, when you click on the image to enlarge, brings up a window with a smallish image! So, to see the image full-size, you have to save it to the desktop (on a mac) or right-click to 'view image' (on a PC), after which you click it *again* to see it full-size. Maybe I can turn that 'feature' off...I'll look around.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Crater Map

Another illustration draft for the space book; a selection of the best-known impact craters on planet Earth. Over millions of years, many impact craters--from space objects such as meteorites--have been eroded away by wind and water, giving humanity a false image of the Earth as being relatively safe from space debris.

Friday, September 16, 2011


With two books due immediately, a talk on the horizon and an interview with PBS's Bob Edwards set up for 05 October, my mind is whirling. Next year, I thought today as I walked to the office, I will take a little less work, and spend more time on the balloon project and, finally, writing the Iceland book. For the moment, write, write, write, and when I'm done for the day I can relax with Boccherini's "La Musica Notturna Delle Strade Di Madrid", which I really enjoy (you might recognize it from the movie, 'Master and Commander').

Pressure suit project: tonight, install helmet hold-down cable, adjust left thigh constriction problem, design seat restraints for ground tests. Coolant pump is in the mail, it will arrive just in time! I'm tempted to sew in the coolant tubes to the undergarment, but I need to see how the pump works with the existing tubing before doing that.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Master Power and Voltmeter

Installed the master power switch (still waiting for the power indicator light to arrive in the mail, but it's easy to install) and the DC voltmeter (to the right of the master switch I'm activating). Two hours just for these little items, but slowly, piece by piece, the system grows toward utility! Eventually the whole control board will have to be taken apart and built into something more workable as a cockpit, but for the moment, getting it to work is the goal, which both identifies exactly every switch and gauge needed, the weight of the whole system, and gets me intimately familiar with the system. There's no substitute for building it myself, because in the event of a malfunction that intimate knowledge will give be the best possible chance of knowing what's gone wrong, and how to bypass or solve it.

Spore Dispersal

Draft of a figure for the space book: different kinds of spore dispersal, by short and tall fungi. The laminar air flow parallel to the ground is avoided by both fungi's spore-dispersing methods, which puts spores into the more turbulent air flow, resulting in longer-distance dispersal.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Draft drawing of a comet, for the space book. Click to enlarge; on the upper right is a Boeing 747 to give an idea of the scale. This is a medium-small sized comet core (the tail is not visible). The image needs some work, but it's coming along.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Testbed Work

In the upper image, the testbed from the front; below, from the back, showing the installed liquid coolant tank (clear plastic cylinder with orange bands) and the 12v battery (small black block with yellow strap--this is just a motorcycle battery, but I'll switch to a larger battery(ies) later). Next up; install the coolant pump, the panel lights and other electrics. Then, back to the suit itself.

As i began the project, I planned to have as few indicators (gauges etc) as possible, but with a breathing gas and suit pressurization system, two altimeters (one low-altitude, one high-altitude), temperature and various pressure gauges (not to mention the VHF aviation radio, also to be installed) I'm ending up building a large control panel, but there's just no way around it. You quickly run into a lot of interesting issues in building such a system, including minute details regarding the placement of each display and control.

Right now, all of this is built into a wooden testbed equipped with wheels so it's easy to move around while making tests; later, it will all be built into a cockpit assembly mounted on the balloon car itself. But, for the moment, I'm sorting out just exactly what I do and do not need, and how much all of that is going to weigh...then, when that is known, the task is to build a balloon that will lift the whole package--with me installed as the pilot!--to 50,000 feet. Since I'm finishing up two books right now, I only have about 8 hours per weekend to work on the going is slow.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Electrical System

Starting to build the electrical system, which will run on one or several 12v batteries. A few years ago I designed and installed the 12v system on my friend John Haslett's 30-foot sailboat, and the book I used--Casey's Sailboat Electrics Simplified was so good that I still remember it, and picked up a copy to guide me along. On the distribution panel (click image to enlarge) you see, from the top, switches for the VHF radio, a low-amperage light (red, to prevent loss of night vision) to illuminate the instrument panel, breathing gas (oxygen) heater, propane fuel heater (to clear frozen fuel could be -70F where I'm going!), suit heater (should not be needed at all, as the pressurizing gas in the suit is an excellent insulator, and military high altitude balloon pilots, it turns out, more often overheated than became cold!) and suit coolant pump, which will circulate cooling fluid through hoses sewn into my pressure suit liner. Getting the power to do all of that from 12v batteries is going to be a challenge, and I am considering a solar panel array to keep the batteries charged. I'm also researching chemical methods to keep the propane burner fuel lines from freezing, as I'm skeptical that the 12v system will actually have enough power to keep them cleared. Casey's book is a wonder, and I recommend it for anyone working with a system like this. The suit I'm leaving alone for a bit, just thinking through some fixes to a couple of issues. The electrical system is a nice diversion. It is thoroughly fulfilling to design and build something that works!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Heavenly Breezes

In a 1593 letter to Galileo, German astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote,

"Provide ships or sails adapted to the heavenly breezes, and there will be some who will not fear even that void."

What is a void? What is a terror? There are some, of course; while others, we manufacture. One real terror, a place where humanity is hard-pressed to survive, is Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America, if you are in a sailboat. Sailing legends Robin Knox-Johnson and Bernard Moitissier describe it here; and above, 16-year old Jessica Watson is seen in her sailboat, just rounding the Cape, in a video frame from her recent solo sailing circumnavigation of the Earth. Yes -- there will be some who will not fear even that void!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Boilerhouse Valves

"Wendell Moore, Rocket Installations Engineer at Bell Aircraft, the man responsible for fitting the engine into the [first rocket airplane in the late 1940's] X1, shakes his head today when he recalls some of the early problems.

"We had valves in that plane that were boilerhouse valves, old brake valves--anything we could fix up in a hurry. To save time, we'd use standard castings and then design our special fittings to match the size. When we got through, we had a big fantastic piece of junk that you'd suspect might belong on a tractor. But we made it work."

From Mallan, L. 1955. Men, Rockets and Space Rats. New York, Messner.

Above, a photo of the X1 purging hydrogen peroxide fuel after a landing. After the 'bracing' experience of flying such a craft faster than the speed of sound, test pilot Chuck Yaeger said "I couldn't talk for two days."

Sunday, August 21, 2011


After installing a new hose, on rather a whim I decided to put the suit on, for the first time in some months; the fit is decent, but too tight in some places, making for some diabolically detailed seaming on my part in the next few evenings. Putting the suit on, and taking it off, alone, is challenging; it's very tight. But, once a few pounds of pressure have been pumped into it, that will expand the suit somewhat, taking the load off my calves and a few other places. Is sweated a lot putting it on and taking it off, reminding me to sew a sweat-absorbing headband into the helmet liner (not seen here). I also must treat the inside of the helmet visor with an anti-fog treatment; if the visor fogs, and that fog freezes at high altitude, I'll be blind! There is a helmet-visor warming coil built into the visor--just like the defog wires in a car rear window, but I'm still working out the power requirement (the helmet is Russian! I have a manual, but need to get it translated). All in all, a good exercise!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Breathing Gas System Test

Though I'm still waiting for one hose, I fixed my valve problem and today carried out a full-pressure test of the breathing gas delivery system; breathing gas comes from the silver tank, where it flows out at 150PSI, to a pressure regulator that steps the pressure down to 10PSI, which is then routed by the red hose into the high-altitude breathing gas regulator (the large, cylindrical unit at the bottom of the blac, vertical instrument panel). From here, depending on altitude, the regulator delivers either am mix of ambient gas (air) and the pressurized supply, or 100% breathing gas from the cylinder; one can set the mix with a control knob. Later, I'll put the pressure regulator into an airtight box that can be pumped down to pressures simulating high altitude, but for the moment the test went well, though there are of course new issues to deal with; the step-down pressure controller is a little fiddly, and needs a better control knob, and the instrument panel certainly needs a powerful light so I can see the displays.

A good day! Now to make the last adjustments to the pressure suit itself, when the last hose arrives, and gear up for the full test at the end of the month!