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The Flight of the HANS PFALL by Stephen R. Wilk

The Flight of the Hans Pfall

by Stephen R. Wilk
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In the Southern Literary Messenger for June 1835 there appeared a piece entitled “The Unparalleled Adventures of one Hans Pfaal.” It told of the adventures of a Dutch bellows-maker who constructed an immense balloon and used it to fly to the Moon. The story contained information about the construction of the balloon, of the instrumentation carried, and of the physical effects of travelling into the rarefied upper air. The changing appearance of the Earth and the physical effects on Pfaal were carefully documented.

Of course, the article was pure fantasy, written by Edgar Allan Poe. He’d researched the science in his article thoroughly, borrowing heavily from the work of John Herschel. When Poe again wrote a fictional story about a balloon flight a decade later (this one across the Atlantic), it was accepted as fact for a time, before being exposed.

Today, of course, people have been educated by the Space Program, by Star Trek, by 2001 and Star Wars and thousands of other movies about interplanetary space and the difficulties of space flight. They know how the atmosphere thins out as you move away from the earth. They know about the need for rocket propulsion, and the airlessness of the Moon. Today, everyone knows that you can’t fly a balloon to the Moon.

Right?

The Kantrowitz Launch Complex occupied three mountaintops in the Special Military District 150 kilometers from Quito, Ecuador. The top floor of the Main Building was an observation deck, from which one could get an unimpeded view of liftoff from the LightPad. Two figures were walking up to the viewpoint. One was a U.S. Air Force lieutenant in the service of the facility. He was shorter than average, but that was not a handicap in a technical service such as this. His uniform was impeccable, with trouser creases you could cut paper on. His companion was a civilian taller than average, whose trousers didn’t appear to have any creases. All his clothes were rumpled as if he’d slept in them, and he sported a potbelly so well-defined that he seemed to have swallowed a basketball. Nevertheless, he walked with brisk authority.

“The Launch Site is five miles downrange,” explained the officer. “You can follow the liftoff in more detail in the monitor booth to the right, but most people just prefer to look through the observation window. The glass absorbs both the launch laser and the alignment laser wavelengths, so you don’t have to worry about stray reflections. Is this your first visit to Kantrowitz, Mr. Gold?”

“Yes,” said the older man, abstractedly, as he craned his neck to look around. “I’ve been to the complexes in Colorado and Nepal several times, but I haven’t had a chance to come down here until now.”

“Are you familiar with the Launch Process, then?”

“Well, why don’t you go over it for me.”

“Okay. You have a Payload in today’s pipeline, I understand. Do you remember your code number? Or… What’s the company name?”

“Gold Technologies—a very original name. I think the code is KL-55.”

The lieutenant quickly manipulated the touchmonitor. “That’s going up in just over two hours. By now your payload has been encapsulated in a Cone and set on its own Frustrum. It will be moving through the Pipe, waiting for its turn on the Pad. We use ordinary water ice for the Frustra, with a special mix of alkali salts and filaments to act as initiator sites for the Laser Sustained Detonation Wave. Before we switched to water ice we used plastics and gels, and we fielded a lot of complains about upper-air pollution from the U.N. and the Ecuadoran Ministeria.”

Gold nodded and made an “Mmm-hmm” noise in approbation.

“About twenty minutes before liftoff the entire Cone—Payload, Capsule, and Frustrum—will be Cleaned, Checked, and loaded into the Catapult. The weight and distribution is verified automatically, the safety straps are removed, and the Big Gun is aligned. If everything checks out, the Pneumatic Ram fires and the Catapult ejects your package two hundred meters into the mountain air. Again, we just use air pressure, so we don’t catch any flak over pollution. Before the Cone has reached the top of its parabola the first laser pulse strikes it.”

“Yes?” prompted Gold.

“We use a battery of six water-cooled see-oh-two lasers, combined into a single beam. We run it through a pulse-shaper to provide a special double pulse. The first part of the pulse is the “metering&” pulse, and vaporizes a thin layer of your Frustrum. The second part of the pulse is the “power&” pulse, which feeds in energy, heats the vapor to plasma, and starts your LSD wave. There’s a rest for 20 milliseconds, then the cycle starts again. It makes an ultrasonic sound wave as a byproduct, so some people call it “singing into orbit”.

“I see,” said Gold. “How large a payload can you handle?”

“You must know that, sir. It’s in the specification package we send out, and I’m sure you engineered your payload to fit inside the guidelines. But a normal load is 500 kilos. Under special circumstances we can increase that a bit.”

“How do you keep control? How can you guarantee that my payload reaches orbit?”

“Well, again, most of this information is in the spec package. There’s an insurance rider that guarantees getting your package into orbit, and proper handling after that, and there’s a payout schedule in the unlikely event of failure. Having been on the team that installed and tested the adaptive optics and steering mechanism, I’d like to emphasize that you don’t have anything to worry about. The probability tree for even a partially disabling failure is vanishingly small. Well under half a percent. And the basic System being used here has been used without incident in Nepal and Colorado for the past ten years.”


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About the Author

Stephen R. Wilk

Stephen R. Wilk is a physicist and engineer, and has been a Contributing Editor for the Optical Society of America for the past decade. He has a number of articles—besides technical publications—on history, mythology, and pop culture, and have two books out, one on mythology and one on optics. He’s had a number of fiction pieces published recently, including one forthcoming in Analog.

Story Discussion

Stories by Stephen R. Wilk

The Flight of the HANS PFALL by Stephen R. Wilk

The Flight of the Hans Pfall

“The Launch Site is five miles downrange,” explained the officer. “You can follow the liftoff in more detail in the monitor booth to the right, but most people just prefer to look through the observation window. The glass absorbs both the launch laser and the alignment laser wavelengths, so you don’t have to worry about stray reflections. Is this your first visit to Kantrowitz, Mr. Gold?”

“Yes,” said the older man, abstractedly, as he craned his neck to look around. “I’ve been to the complexes in Colorado and Nepal several times, but I haven’t had a chance to come down here until now.”

“Are you familiar with the Launch Process, then?”

“Well, why don’t you go over it for me.”

“Okay. You have a Payload in today’s pipeline, I understand. Do you remember your code number? Or… What’s the company name?”

“Gold Technologies—a very original name. I think the code is KL-55.”

The lieutenant quickly manipulated the touchmonitor. “That’s going up in just over two hours. By now your payload has been encapsulated in a Cone and set on its own Frustrum. It will be moving through the Pipe, waiting for its turn on the Pad. We use ordinary water ice for the Frustra, with a special mix of alkali salts and filaments to act as initiator sites for the Laser Sustained Detonation Wave. Before we switched to water ice we used plastics and gels, and we fielded a lot of complains about upper-air pollution from the U.N. and the Ecuadoran Ministeria.”

Read More

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