Never mind NASA

Sacramento inventor and would-be astronaut John Powell has designed a balloon that just may get him into space.

Illustration By John Powell

John Powell’s spaceship lifted off from its desert launch pad climbing at a steady, gentle rate of 1,000 feet per minute above Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. It was a beautiful day for a launch, with blue sky above and a desert of reds and tans, with spots here and there of dark-green sagebrush, shrinking quickly from view below. The sound of strong winds could be heard for a long while as the ship’s canopy was pushed about in the gusts.

The winds began to subside once the craft reached 20,000 feet, around where the airliners fly. But there’s rarely any air traffic over this lonely and alien-looking territory, making it a perfect place for Sacramento-based inventor John Powell to test his spacecraft.

Suddenly, an unexpected and ghostly voice broke the quiet. No gremlins here, just an onboard radio that someone from the ground crew left with the volume turned up, which picked up stray radio transmissions bouncing around the atmosphere. The voices stopped just as abruptly as they were heard. A few minutes later, the sound of the wind faded to a whisper and disappeared altogether as the atmosphere grew too thin to carry sound.

At 70,000 feet, the sky darkened to near black, although it was still mid-afternoon on the Earth’s surface. Approaching 100,000 feet, some stars became visible, and the horizon seemed to have a pronounced curve. This, in fact, was the very curvature of our home planet.

“Space” doesn’t officially start until you get 50 miles from the surface, twice as far as the upper limits of Powell’s airship. Indeed, the ship would be more accurately called a near-space craft, designed to explore the upper reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere at the edge of space.

But for practical purposes, the viewer watching the videotape of the mission was, at least vicariously, an astronaut, hanging in the dark sky vacuum and watching the Earth revolve slowly by below.

One day in the not-too-distant future, Powell hopes to climb aboard himself and go even higher. His ultimate goal is to be an astronaut on a spaceship of his own design.

Space exploration is something Powell has dreamed about since he was 4 years old, when his mom used to help him make paper rockets. As a young man, he developed a knack for building things and earned a reputation as a sort of whiz kid in high school, when he built his own working one-man submarine.

Like many of his generation, Powell was inspired by the images of the astronauts walking on the moon and the promise that he himself could visit space one day. So, in 1978, Powell founded his own company, JP Aerospace, with the hope that he might leave his mark in space as indelibly as the Apollo astronauts had.

JP Aerospace got off to an auspicious start when Powell and his colleagues bid on a project for NASA. They proposed to design and build the orbital transfer vehicle, or “space tug,” that NASA hoped would be part of its space-shuttle program. The space tug would ferry satellites and other cargo from the relatively low orbits in which the shuttle travels to higher altitudes and then would return again to the shuttle.

The agency seemed intrigued by Powell’s ideas, and there were several rounds of written correspondence between NASA and JP Aerospace. But things changed when a NASA official called to discuss the proposal over the phone. “I guess that’s when they first realized we were only 17 years old,” Powell recalled with a laugh, and communication with NASA abruptly stopped.

John Powell inspects his Near Space Maneuvering Vehicle shortly before it is delivered to the U.S. Air Force.

Photo By Ken James

NASA eventually abandoned the space-tug idea, just one of the many ways that expectations of the shuttle program would be scaled back over the years. But Powell never abandoned his quest to break into the space industry.

“We did the venture-capital thing for a while,” he said, “putting on the suits and ties and trying to raise money.” It seemed to pay off in 1986, when Powell designed a very small satellite that “looked like a coffee can with solar panels” and was designed to inspect larger commercial satellites for damage. The funding for a prototype came from a major insurance company (Powell won’t say which one), and JP Aerospace actually was approved for a berth on the space shuttle Columbia in 1986.

When the shuttle Challenger exploded in January of that year, Powell watched the replays over and over again on TV. He was stunned by the death of the crew and the enormous blow to the national space program. And, though not comparable to the tragedy of the lost astronauts, it was a major setback for JP Aerospace. It was suddenly clear that the JP Aerospace satellite would never fly.

“Literally, as the debris from the Challenger was still raining down onto the Earth, the phone was ringing,” he said. “It was the insurance company telling us that they were backing out.”

It wasn’t the end of JP Aerospace. But it was the beginning of Powell’s belief that if he were ever going to reach space, he would have to do it without the help of NASA. He’d need cheaper, more innovative solutions. He’d need balloons.

On a recent Sunday afternoon on the abandoned west side of McClellan Air Force Base, Powell’s battered red pickup truck was the only vehicle that stood parked outside the hangar at Building 704. The truck was the single clue that anything unusual was happening on the nearly deserted base. Emblazoned on the side of the truck in blue and white letters was the company logo and slogan: “JP Aerospace. America’s OTHER Space Program.”

Powell is now 41 years old, with thick glasses and a shaggy mop of dark hair that hangs almost into his eyes. As he led his visitors inside and down a long, dark hallway, Powell came across as an excited, and very bright, kid.

“Well, here it is,” he said with a grin, opening the door at the end of the hallway to the cavernous hangar inside. There was a lot of real estate inside, enough room for whole flocks of pigeons to fly acrobatic steeplechases, but barely enough room for JP Aerospace’s latest, and biggest, project.

A gigantic, blue, nylon, V-shaped balloon crowded most of the hangar. It was composed of two tubes (Powell thinks of them as being like “giant hotdogs”) joined at an angle. Each leg of the airship was 175 feet long and 35 feet in diameter. The balloon ship, which Powell calls the Ascender, was fully inflated with air but rested gently on the hangar floor. It dwarfed Powell as he strolled alongside and ran his hand against the smooth material. Nearby, taking up most of the space remaining in the hangar, was a long, V-shaped frame made of ultra-light carbon-composite rods. Before takeoff, this frame will be attached to the underside of the balloon, supporting the two battery-powered propellers that Powell designed himself for maneuvering the craft through the ultra-thin air of near-space.

“It’s really just a big, delicate butterfly,” he said with some affection. A big delicate butterfly that will, if all goes well, soon head nose first through the Earth’s jet stream and then level out and hang stationary just above the Earth’s atmosphere, where the sky is dark and the Earth is round.

The Air Force calls Powell’s airship the “Near Space Maneuvering Vehicle” (NSMV) and is keenly interested in how his design can help the U.S. government to spy on its enemies. JP Aerospace designed and built the Ascender with about $300,000 in Pentagon money. That’s on top of the $30,000 a month the Air Force was paying in rent for the hangar, all funded by the Air Force Space Battlelab program. The Ascender is being considered for a subset of that program, called “Combat Constant Stare.”

The V-ship is just a prototype, but an operational NSMV would have several tremendous advantages over spy planes and satellites. Military officials want something that will let them watch anyone they want, anywhere they want, for as long as they want, Powell explained. Satellites are whipping around the Earth and can’t stay over one place too long. Airplanes can be shot down with surface-to-air missiles. Neither of these limitations applies to the NSMV. Because most of its surface area is nylon, the vehicle can’t be detected by radar. It also is a high-altitude balloon, so it can hang unnoticed in near-space for days over one city, terrorist training camp or person of interest.

A dark-sky station, looking something like an inflatable starfish, could hover at the edge of space and serve as a high-altitude launch platform for astronauts.

Illustration By John Powell

Powell took off his shoes and unzipped a small hatch on one side of the balloon and climbed in. The outer balloon, the nylon shell, was inflated with air, and there was plenty of room to walk around. It looked more like the world’s biggest inflatable jumping house, a colossal version of the children’s party favorite, than a battle lab.

All along the inside of each leg of the V, like peas in a pod, were several clear helium weather balloons. Many of them weren’t inflated (otherwise the ship would have been floating around inside the hangar) but most had some of the lighter-than-air gas still inside, enough to float them like giant jellyfish to the ceiling. At the crook of the V was a sort of wide room where one could look down the length of both tubes, which tapered away in the distance.

At the end of February, the entire balloon will be packed into a box around the size of a large refrigerator and sent to Texas. The frame will follow on flatbed trucks, and the ship will be reassembled for a demonstration flight for Air Force brass. Its first mission is simple: Climb to 120,000 feet, fly at that elevation to a point four miles away, turn around and then return. If the NSMV can do that, chances are good that the Air Force will continue funding for bigger, and more developed, versions. The next Ascender, said Powell, will be flatter and more aerodynamic, with a stronger shell and fuel cells to power its propellers.

In fact, beyond the Air Force project, Powell hopes to build on this prototype and scale it to a near-space station, or a “dark-sky station,” that would serve as a high-altitude platform from which astronauts could launch themselves into space.

Standing in his socks inside the ship, and rocking from foot to foot because the floor was freezing cold, Powell explained that he never really intended the Ascender to be a piece of semi-rigid military hardware. But he said the fact that the Air Force became interested in it and has helped fund the work will speed JP Aerospace toward its ultimate goal.

Powell isn’t a rocket scientist; he never even finished his physics degree at the University of California, Davis. And yet he’s convinced his company can give NASA some competition. “We’re about halfway through a 15-year plan. Within eight years, we want to have a manned space program,” Powell said.

“At half past nine I tried the experiment of throwing out a handful of feathers through the valve. They did not float as I had expected, but dropped down perpendicularly, like a bullet, en masse, and with the greatest velocity, being out of sight in a very few seconds.”

So reads an early and entirely fictional account of human exploration of near-space, written by Edgar Allen Poe in one of his 19th-century science-fiction tales. “The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall,” written in 1835, details an imagined balloon trip from the Earth to the moon. Although the story is a product of Poe’s imagination, it does accurately describe some of the conditions of near-space, such as the way falling bodies move so quickly through the wispy, almost nonexistent atmosphere. When the narrator describes how the sky grows darker with increasing altitude and how the stars become incredibly bright, Poe could, in fact, be describing the view from one of Powell’s airships. That is until Poe’s fictional balloon actually flips upside down and lands on the moon, where the hero encounters a strange race of earless but telepathic troll people.

But the area of near-space, at the top of the Earth’s atmosphere, really is populated by weird, fantastically named entities. “Gnomes” and “sprites” are the names given by scientists to strange electrical storms that cause flashes of colored light at the edge of space. Near-space is a vast and strange frontier, in some ways as fantastic as a Poe story.

Around the world, professional researchers and amateurs alike use weather balloons to explore this frontier. Powell’s Ascender actually was inspired by a hybrid balloon-rocket technology first pioneered by the U.S. government scientist James Van Allen in the 1950s. In the time just before Sputnik was launched by the Soviets, Van Allen was using balloon-launched rockets, which were called rockoons, to research cosmic rays that were bombarding the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

The idea was simple: A balloon would carry a rocket to about 100,000 feet, and the rocket would fire off toward space, often puncturing the balloon during launch. Until then, the only manmade objects to reach space were the German V-2s fired during World War II, and captured V-2s later tested by American scientists.

Rockoons were unreliable; only about one of every dozen launches succeeded, said Powell. But they were an incredibly cheap way to reach space, using small rockets and plentiful weather balloons, and were far less expensive than the heavy, ground-launched V-2s. Van Allen’s rockoons were able to reach an altitude of 70 miles on occasion, and the research physicist used them to great effect. In fact, the girdles of radiation that encircle the globe today are called the Van Allen belts.

John Powell hopes to be an astronaut aboard a spacecraft of his own design one day.

Photo By Ken James

Today, it seems like a counterintuitive way to reach space. Balloons must be too simple, too low-tech, to advance us any further in the Space Age. And yet, balloons also make a kind of elegant sense.

“If you lived at the bottom of the ocean, how would you get to space?” Powell asked. “Would you launch a rocket from the ocean floor? No, of course not. You’d float the rocket to the surface and then fire it.”

The Earth’s atmosphere, he explained, is really just another ocean, thick and resistant to the high speeds that rockets need to achieve. But the rockoon takes advantage of the atmosphere instead of fighting it. Balloons rise quickly through the atmosphere. Rockets shoot quickly through the absence of one.

Two or three times a year, the folks from JP Aerospace drive out to the Black Rock Desert to test their rockoons and also to send aloft the various components of the NSMV airship: motors, propellers and electronics, on great spidery frames that are lifted miles into the air by balloon.

They drive out in what Powell calls the “Blue Canyon Express,” a retired news van that JP Aerospace bought from KXTV 10 for $500. Aside from the blue and white JP Aerospace logo, the van is festooned with corporate logos from JP Aerospace’s sponsors. Companies like Home Depot and lesser-known aerospace businesses pony up money to have their logos affixed to all of JP Aerospace’s projects, prompting Powell at times to call his company the “NASCAR of space.”

In the spirit of bringing space exploration to the masses, or vice versa, the group sets aside room on every flight for a boxful of “pong-sats.” These are tiny experiments housed in pingpong balls, conceived by Sacramento-area grade-schoolers and high-school students. Some of the experiments are simple, such as the pong-sat with a marshmallow inside. (Yes, a marshmallow behaves strangely in a vacuum.) Others are more sophisticated, such as the RAM computer chip one high-schooler sent aboard to be bombarded by cosmic rays. It’s good PR for the company, but it also reinforces the notion that anybody, not just the government or heavy-hitting research institutions, can get in on the space action.

Powell and company have yet to reach the 50-mile mark—space proper—with a rockoon, though they have come close. Unlike in Van Allen’s time, the government is skittish about letting people launch high-altitude rockets, and getting the proper permits can take up to a year. Powell said JP Aerospace was the first private organization to get a bona fide space-flight permit for an attempted launch back in 1999. But just one day before takeoff, the Federal Aviation Administration put a last-minute restriction on how far JP Aerospace’s balloon could drift from its launch site before firing the rocket. The original launch corridor was 45 miles wide, but the government closed it to five miles. Powell’s rockoon drifted to the very edge of that corridor before launching, long before it reached the ideal altitude. “If we could have waited another 45 minutes, just drifted that much higher, we would have reached space,” Powell explained, shaking his head.

The company made another attempt in 2001, when a $250,000 “Cheap Access to Space” prize was being offered by the Space Frontier Foundation to the first completely

private organization to launch a rocket into space. But that mission came crashing down in the desert when the balloon failed. The prize was never claimed.

Despite all the setbacks and near misses, Powell and his colleagues at JP Aerospace remain convinced that they can help open the space frontier in a way that NASA and other national space agencies can’t.

“Cheap access to space is what we need,” explained Powell’s business partner, Al Differ, on a recent tour of JP Aerospace’s workshop in Rancho Cordova (the McClellan hangar was rented just for the Air Force NSMV project). To that end, JP Aerospace designs all its own rockets (the nose cone, the fuselage—everything but the engine) and builds them from cheap, readily available carbon-composite sheeting. The stuff is incredibly strong and light and is available cheaply from a local plastics distributor. The rocket engines themselves are purchased from companies like HyperTek, which supply the remarkably widespread amateur-rocketry community.

“We’ve just got a different attitude; we’re not a big government contractor,” said Differ. Asking NASA or the big companies to come up with cheap access to space, he said, “is like asking IBM to come up with the Apple 2. They just aren’t organized for it.”

Volunteers launch an experimental near-space craft in the Black Rock Desert.

The company hopes to break into the market for the new generation of “micro-satellites,” some no bigger than a coffee cup, thanks to miniaturization technology. Smaller companies have a hard time getting rides for their micro-satellites and have to piggyback with the bigger companies on NASA-launched rockets, and they wait months for a launch date. Ultimately, JP Aerospace’s plan is to launch micro-satellites on demand, using balloon-launched rockets of its own design.

On a parallel with its rocketry efforts, JP Aerospace hopes to scale up later versions of the NSMV, eventually big enough to carry a near-space crew cabin, and then a rocket with a crew capsule, that can be shot into orbit. “We’ve even got our own astronaut-training program,” Powell said proudly. And the company has about a dozen East German pressure suits to practice with.

The motto of the Sacramento L5 Society is: “Some of us are going, even if we have to walk.” The club is made up of a dozen or so local inventors and space enthusiasts, including Powell and Differ. It’s a strange motto; walking to space seems about as likely as taking a hot-air balloon to the moon and encountering a race of trolls. Still, it speaks to the idea of space as a frontier that should be open to the masses—masses who will get there by whatever means necessary.

“If you think back to the Lewis and Clark expedition,” Differ reasoned, “the federal government financed that. The government first explored the near frontier, and shortly after that, the private sector followed through.” For Differ, NASA and big national space agencies have had their Lewis-and-Clark moment. Now it’s time for the pioneers and homesteaders.

The greatest obstacle to private space programs, of course, is that it is just too expensive to launch anything, let alone people, into space.

“Right now it costs $10,000 a pound to put something in orbit,” said L5 member and inventor Robert Compton, who is working on a patent for his own hydrogen-peroxide-powered rocket. “At that price, we’re never going anywhere.” Compton is a retired engineer who now devotes himself to making rocket motors. He has his own machine shop in his garage and builds all his own parts. “I’m trying to make the simplest rocket possible. Really, it’s not rocket science,” Compton said with a completely straight face.

Later in the L5 group’s meeting, Bruce Moomaw, a semi-professional space journalist and raconteur from Cameron Park, briefed the rest of the club on his recent trip to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, where he interviewed lab scientists for stories on the Mars rovers that he has written for Astronomy magazine.

Most of the information about the Mars rovers would later be on C-SPAN and the NASA Channel. But Moomaw is just as excited about Stardust—the first successful mission to collect material from a comet. Stardust made its flyby of the comet Wild 2 on the same day that the rover Opportunity landed. But the comet probe was mostly lost in the media glare of the Mars mission.

The conversation turned to how much ice there is in a comet and how a comet might be mined to provide water to any space colony in the comet’s flight path. This is esoteric, science-fiction material, and it serves as a sudden reminder that these folks still yearn for the story they were promised in science-fiction books and movies.

“I guess we were all sold on the dreams of the ’60s and ’70s,” Differ explained. “There were supposed to be colonies in space. We were supposed to be there by now. What happened?”

What happened, said Rick Tumlinson, founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, was NASA’s space shuttle and the international space station. “Space is like the church, and the astronauts are the priests.” And what is needed is a reformation.

“I call it the movement,” Tumlinson explained. Many of the movement’s participants, like Powell and Differ, grew up watching the Apollo program and were lured in by the promise of a real permanent human presence in space in their lifetime, as well as the possibility of going to space themselves.

The pioneers of the Sacramento L5 Society: from left, space writer Bruce Moomaw, JP Aerospace partner Al Differ (modeling an East German space suit) and garage rocket maker Robert Compton.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Instead, NASA astronauts got bogged down in low Earth orbit, never returning to the moon and never going farther. The shuttle program, though a scientific and engineering marvel, hardly inspired a next generation of would-be astronauts in the way the moon landings did. The space station costs billions more than it was supposed to, and it became boring. “Earth orbit is no place for a respectable space program,” Powell remarked.

But those kids who watched the moon landings and dreamed of going to space one day grew up, inspired to enter the fields of science and technology. Some of them made millions in the dot-com economy. And now, with some money and experience under their belts, they want to take their space dreams into their own hands.

Take the X Prize, for example. It’s a $10 million prize being offered to the first private company to put a two-man crew in space and bring it home again safely. One of the leading contenders is Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal. Armadillo Aerospace, another X Prize contender, is bankrolled by John Carmack, who made his fortune inventing the popular computer games Doom and Quake. And Jeff Bezos, founder of, is quietly building his own spacecraft. All are in their 30s or early 40s, and all were weaned on Star Wars and science-fiction novels. And all, just like Powell, are confident they can crash NASA’s private party.

Tumlinson said the arrival of this generation, combined with NASA’s stagnation throughout the past two decades (notwithstanding the recent Mars rover missions) spells the end of the government monopoly of human space flight.

For proof that the meme is spreading, one might consider a recent episode of the popular TV show The West Wing, in which the president’s chief of staff, Leo McGarry, expresses his befuddlement at how the Space Age fizzled. “Where’s my jet pack?” he asks crossly.

Leave the stuff “out there”—the planetary probes to Mars and the farther reaches of the solar system—to the government, says the generation. As with the Lewis-and-Clark expeditions, only the government can mount the explorations of the far frontier. But the near frontier is ready to be opened to the pioneers and settlers, the space tourists and entrepreneurs.

Among the great gateways to the stars, none is more fabled than Cape Canaveral. There’s also Baikonur Cosmodrome in Russia, which has been the jumping-off point for a generation of cosmonauts. And the successful flight of China’s first “taikonaut” on a rocket launched from the Gobi Desert last year has put Jiuquan on the map.

Then there’s the Pecos County Spaceport.

That’s where Powell and Differ were, waiting for a decent patch of weather to launch their Ascender, as this story was going to print. The facility, just outside Fort Stockton, Texas, is little more than open field, three concrete launch pads and some phone lines in the middle of nowhere. Pecos opened the facility two years ago, hoping to hitch its economic development to the rise of the private space industry. And JP Aerospace signed the first lease. Powell said Pecos has one tremendous advantage over the Black Rock Desert: “You can actually get to orbit from here.” Just a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico, the Pecos County Spaceport offers wide-open launch corridors.

After the NSMV demonstration, JP will be back to show off its rough and ready rocket designs for a different branch of the Air Force, to show that rockets can be built much more cheaply and quickly.

After that, JP Aerospace will continue its two-pronged strategy toward a manned space program. Later this year, a converted “dark-sky station” balloon ship will fly with its first human crew. Those first manned test flights, said Powell, will climb to the “the dizzying altitude of five feet,” with higher ascents to follow.

On the other front, the group will keep refining its balloon-launched rocket technology. Within two years, Powell said, JP Aerospace could launch a rocket not only into space, but also into orbit. Manned space flight will come in eight years, he thinks. It’s a plodding, deliberative process.

In the meantime, we may see the X Prize won and a wave of early, and incredibly expensive, space-tourist flights from other companies.

But the folks at JP Aerospace are confident they’ll soon be in space. Even if they have to walk.