In the desert of New Mexico, artist Tomás Saraceno realized the very first human flight in a zero carbon solar-powered hot air balloon. The Aerocene act critiques atmospheric pollution due to air and space transportation—and will be presented in Paris during COP21.
White Sands Desert (New Mexico), special report
The first-ever recorded solar-powered hot air balloon took off on November 8, 2015 over the spectacular White Sands Desert, propelled by Studio Tomás Saraceno and curated by Rob La Frenais. For three hours without touching the ground, the balloon rose into the air without the usual burner, its black fabric heated by the sun and the infrared rays reflected by the white dunes.
On the eve of November 8, some 50 people, pilots and balloonists, photographers and cameramen, rope-pullers and sand-tossers, cyclists and refreshment teams, arrived in the sandy white desert during a radiant sunrise, under a cloudless sky, without the faintest breeze.
In 360°, Aerocene flight in White Sands on November 8:
Move your cursor around the image to activate 360° view.
Historic and symbolic site
The chosen launch site is on the border between the national park and the White Sands Missile Range military zone. A symbolic choice for an action to raise awareness of climate change.
Just north of the White Sands security zone is Trinity Point, where the first atomic bomb exploded in 1945. That same year, just south of the white dunes, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory launched the first rocket into the stratosphere. This zone would become the development site for intensive missile testing.
Today, given the heated debate around climate change, the explosion of the first atomic bomb is considered as a possible milestone to mark the beginning of the Anthropocene, the geological age in which humans began to have an irreversible influence on the environment. What better message to send the world leaders and COP21 than an aerosolar action in this natural space marked by 20th century military escalation? 70 years after the bomb and the rocket, could this maiden solar-powered flight mark the beginning of the Aerocene?
Space without Rockets
In 2015, Saraceno asks, how can we continue to launch rockets into space while burning large quantities of hydrocarbons? He makes a global appeal to rewrite the Aviation Law and enter the Aerocene, the age that protects the air from human folly.
The act, subtitled Space without Rockets, denounces the new Spaceport America situated a stone’s throw away from the white desert. The space tourism race poses a problem. The airport was built under the initiative of Virgin Galactic, the spatial entreprise of flamboyant, demagogue billionaire Richard Branson, who wants to charge $250,000 to send his counterparts into space on board his SpaceShipTwo.
The black carbon of space tourism
The big threat of developing space trips is black carbon (or thermal black, furnace black), which, once spread into the stratosphere, remains suspended there for years, absorbing visible sunlight. While black carbon resulting from air traffic falls down after about 10 days, washed away by the rain, in the stratosphere, it remains in orbit for 10 to 20 years.
A study published in 2011 for NASA on the consequences of an average of 1,000 space flights per year (as opposed to 70 to 100 rockets today), indicates that changes in climatic balance could cause polar surface temperatures to rise by 1°C and reduce polar ice by 5 to 15 %.
The flight of this prototype balloon was captive, in other words, always tethered to the ground by ropes held by volunteer hands, as the air exhaust valves for piloting needed to be tested. The radical gesture was launching a person into flight using only the power of the sun. The first was Marija Petrić Mikloušić, a Croatian balloonist with more than 1,000 hours of flight experience.
First steps in the lunar White Sands Desert:
As the sun shone more and more intensely, the expert balloonists decided that the balloon had become too powerful to be controlled by ropes alone. Marija took back the reins for a few valve tests, then the balloon was emptied of its burning air. In the distance, another smaller model was already rising into the air. Saraceno’s team took the opportunity to test other aerosolar sculptures.
A light utopian breeze
This first act launches the international initiative Aerocene, a collaborative project that favors collective and disruptive interactions in the field of alternative space technologies.
360° view of White Sands Desert from an solar-powered balloon:
In the long term, Aerocene plans to organize the longest zero carbon flight of an aerostat. Saraceno and his team will build a network of local initiatives contributing along the way to the balloon-relay, a chance to gather balloonists, scientists, artists, activists, ecologists, hackers, makers and citizens. Compliance with weather conditions and induced delays will be the messengers of the wisdom of the Aerocene.
“As a sculpture with a research potential that translates scientific research into an art form, the aerostat can contribute to continuing dialogue between art and science, allowing us to imagine new ways to collect data and distribute information.”
Tomás Saraceno, artist
Studio Tomás Saraceno brings its message to Paris for COP21—first by displaying infrared hot air balloons (MIR) in the Solutions21 exhibition from December 4-10, then on December 5-6 to give a workshop on Museo Aero Solar, its famous collaborative construction project to make balloons out of plastic bags, accompanied by an Aerocene symposium.
Making of: Ewen Chardronnet, who will publish in February 2016 Mojave Epiphanie on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the White Sands Missile Range military base, was invited to the “Space without Rockets” conference, courtesy of Institut français.