Aerocene: Bring The Sun Down
Published 10 April 2023 by Rob La Frenais
The complex drama of a fossil-fuel free flight was acted out on Wednesday April 5 by the Aerocene community in the wide flatlands of central France, near Maintenon, Eure, with an attempt at a world record for a solar balloon flight, or floating sculpture as founder Tomás Saraceno puts it.
Funded by, among others, Mondes Nouveaux, the French government artistic pandemic recovery fund, a variety of artists, pilots, journalists, film crews, observers and drone operators gathered in a field for the latest in a series of ongoing experiments to fly with the sun. Firstly it must be said, that although the new 7000 m3 Aerocene balloon inflated to its full majestic glory, despite a community of people running with the gondola and sculpture nearly three kilometres in wet fields, it didn’t manage to take off with its pilot in the gondola for more than a few metres. Arriving at a road, we were met by two police cars and four gendarmes who politely told us to let the Aerocene down as we were creating a hazard. Soaking wet and exhausted, we complied. After examining the huge banner saying – “Fly free from fossil fuels” – “Stop War-s! Peace Now!”, and “Water and Life are worth more than Lithium”, written with the Communities of Salinas Grandes and Laguna de Guayatayoc, Jujuy, Argentina, no doubt to check if this was not some elaborate protest against President Emmanuel Macron’s retirement age changes being forced through, (for our international readers, France is currently convulsed by strikes and sometimes violent demonstrations agains this), the flics took selfies of each other with the deflating Aerocene. As Samuel Beckett said (quoted by Tomás Saraceno in the project’s WhatsApp feed) “Fail, fail again, fail better”. Despite the lack of take-off we were all exhilarated by the effort of running in the field with a vast balloon, trying to follow the wind, begging the sun to grow stronger. As Tomás Saraceno said – “we try, we try, to bring the sun down”.
This attempt produced some insights into both the philosophical and technical aspects of Aerocene. As member of the Aerocene community Makery was able to attend the pre-flight briefing by Tomás Saraceno and his team the night before. First of all, the gondola of the new aerosolar balloon had to include a burner for safety reasons. Indeed, in the event of a sudden drop in altitude in the wrong place, the balloon had to be able to urgently get back into the air to preserve the pilot’s life. This burner was sealed for the purposes of the record attempt, with possibilty to break the seal at any moment. Tomás Saraceno also expressed some of the aspects of serendipity that was needed to approach a solar flight and discussed the need for community: “I like this community aspect that many people are helping. There is not only one pilot, but it’s kind of many people – experts and non experts and people who do something for the first time in their life, and they’re part of the process somehow, which comes automatically with experience”. Speaking on behalf of the Aerocene community, a member of the Aerocene community expanded on this “The Aerocene community is an open-source collective, a movement for an era free from borders and fossil fuels!…Tomás is a founding member of Aerocene, but the community is a living, ever-evolving collective coming together for climate justice with nodes all over the world.”
I myself had helped organise the first record-breaking Aerocene flight in White Sands Desert in 2015, New Mexico, where our initial plan to fly in the famous National Monument was thwarted by the tragic death there a week previously by exposure of two French parents and a child who got lost in the fierce sun (the child survived). Miraculously, we managed to persuade a US Army General, Timothy Coffin, latterly of the US Space Force, to let us launch in the military sector of White Sands, the cold-war unexploded missile-strewn White Sands Missile Base, with two weeks to go before the launch. The first record-breaking flight launched successfully at dawn.
The synthesis of artistic desire, uncertainty and technical calculations is never better reflected in the circumstances surrounding this flight. Despite a very successful test flight in Switzerland with the same equipment – a balloon more than twice the size of the 3000 m3 balloon used on the previous flights and this time with a gondola, so a completely different challenge – we were in fact late in a rather favourable winter season for ballooning, due to the recent sudden changes in the weather in France (the prolonged drought of January-February had been followed by a rainy March and that morning in April I had to scrape the ice off my car windscreen). Weeks before there had been intense discussion on a dedicated WhatsApp group on weather predictions for the coming month, including a comparison of different weather forecasting models. One could have gained a useful education in meteorology through simply following this discussion. But finally, with 24 hours notice, we had a call to ‘go’ on Wednesday April 5 and people scrambled to get to the site by any means necessary, from Berlin, New York, Switzerland and remote parts of France as well as nearby Paris. It was a genuine coming-together of the Aerocene community and we were excited. Even the mainstream French TV channels were there. There was a significant buzz as the crowds gathered by a disused railway track as the sculpture was unrolled and inflated with an electric fan. None of us regretted being there. The whole event was covered live on Instagram with a miked-up Tomás and team member Christian Flemm’s animated blow-by-blow livestream while running frantically though the fields alongside the vast, fast-moving Aerocene.
This event highlighted the uncertainty lurking behind solar balloon flights as opposed to usual hot-air balloons, which release carbon into the atmosphere. We were able to talk to the two professional balloon pilots about the future for fossil-fuel flight within their industry, the balloon pilot for today’s flight, Lea Zeberli of Ballon Zeberli and the local balloon pilot and expert, Corentin Ragot of Air Pegasus Montgolfiere. Could fossil-fuel free flight be a pointer for their burgeoning leisure ballooning industry? What could be learned from this not-quite flight? Lea told us how it first started: “I was approached through the balloon manufacturer if I would be interested in a secret project. And I said, sure, tell me more about it then. I have got the first video from Leticia Marques (the pilot) in Argentina, from Aerocene Pacha, and I’ve been told that it’s going to be about about a solar balloon, a much bigger balloon. And they told me that it needs an experienced pilot who has the permit to fly such a big balloon and that the requirement is or the reach from Tomás is to have a woman. And I agreed…I went to Barcelona to see the balloon, to get an experience of what it is about, what is the difference with a hot air balloon, which I knew how to fly. I mean, it’s of course, the question what it is about, I mean, if you consider, is it going to exchange a normal hot air balloon to fly a passenger? My answer is no, just because the condition are not high enough to really fly. If you concede and say, you know what, we do kind of a little combination, and we say we would do a low fuel consumption. The main problem is the take-off”.
I pointed out that It’s the same problem about getting into space, because there are people who can say you can get into space with balloons, but the last moment where you have to get into orbit, and there’s no way balloon technology can do that (find out more in Space Without Rockets). So that’s interesting. In a way, this is more like a symbolic action. Did this mean that you think that a hybrid solution would be more sustainable? “Yes, I did not think of a hybrid solution before , actually. I really liked the idea of the sun. Of course, it’s to consider when the solar balloon actually is acting, it’s during the daytime when you also have thermals. This is one of the reason why it’s difficult. So for me, I think this is a balloon to do long distance flying in more hilly regions than here in France where we are right now.”
What did Corentin Ragot think about the absence of the use of the burner in a solar flight? – I have to say I hoped for a lot of years to find a solution to remove the burner and the propane from the equation of the balloon. Yes, I heard about this balloon quite a few years ago, but I have never seen it in real-time. And I see the video from Argentina flying with it and yes, I have to say it’s amazing. And if we can make it work perfectly, it will be just amazing. I would be more and more than happy to fly only with this kind of balloon and put my own balloon in the garbage.”
In a later conversation Lea Zeberli talked about her first experience of flying the ‘secret project’, the new larger sculpture, the EC-096 Aerocene Aerosolar vehicle which held 7000m3 of air, successfully in Lake Constance in Switzerland, which we tried to fly on Wednesday. In a test flight in Barcelona she realised that a solar balloon had massive lifting power, which was greater than a hot air balloon, once aloft.
Apart from private tests, there have only been three ‘successful’ human flights of the Aerocene. The first was organised by the Rubin Center of the University of El Paso (Texas) at White Sands (New Mexico) in 2015, which was a captive flight and the film of which was screened at the Grand Palais during the COP21 in Paris (as already mentioned above). The second, also a captive flight but this time with a short test of free flight, was organised in the Fontainebleau forest during Tomás Saraceno’s exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in 2018. Finally the third set a series of world records with an Aerocene Pacha free flight in Salinas Grandes, Argentina, in January 2020. The experience in Maintenon showed there is still a long path towards the dream of reliable fossil fuel-free flying.
Finally it is important to comment on the Aerocene community’s stance on the decarbonisation of the air and behavioural change. On the announcement web page, they say: “Today, humanity’s dream of flight has become a nightmare. There are 1.3 million people in the air at any given time, releasing over 1 billion tons of CO2 annually, as the interests of capitalist systems continue to obscure an imaginary that shouldn’t be claimed by any bomb, missile, flag or billionaire. In addition to technological change, the decarbonisation of the air and a just energy transition also demand significant behavioural change. This is truly not rocket science!” As a no-fly curator since 2019, I’m pleased to see that the Aerocene community demands behavioural change on flying. However, because of the close window (48 hours) and the rapidly changing weather conditions, a number of people, including the workers at Studio Tomás Saraceno and other people involved in the project flew in Europe, from Berlin to Paris for example, to be at the launch. I, too, arrived at the last minute to this remote location from my village in France in a petrol-driven car. In organising the pioneer flight in 2015, I also flew a number of people into White Sands from around the world, so I know this is a process of change for which we must all take responsibility. After all, Greta Thunberg managed to get to Chile from Europe, with a catamaran across the Atlantic and a bus, for COP24 without flying.
We asked an Aerocene community member to comment on the use of flights by participants on this flight: “the Aerocene Community fosters collaboration towards a future free from fossil fuels! In the process of confronting the climate crisis as a team, as part of a collective, we work as best we can to recognise our spheres of response-ability and act accordingly, towards a true alignment with the living, breathing Earth. We do sometimes have to fly for projects we truly believe in, projects which are in their own way inching us to alternative futures, but, given current energy regimes and travel infrastructures, the path is not always linear. The aim is to continue to learn from each experience, so we can do better in the following opportunity, however, without wanting to stigmatise individual actions.”
It is also worth noting that the slogan “Water and Life are worth more than Lithium” carried on the balloon and expressed by the Communities of Salinas Grandes in Argentina resonated interestingly with current French environmental struggles. The attempted Aerocene flight took place only a few days after the riots in Sainte Soline (that were life-threatening for some participants), where environmental activists demanded a halt to the construction of “mega-bassines” and the preservation of water as a common good in the face of the planned extraction of groundwater for agro-industrial purposes, and at a time when France is planning to open a major lithium mine in the Allier department and is exploring other possible veins throughout the country.
On a final note, it is clear that this is a long and creative process of learning how to fly with the sun. Aerocene community aerial data expert Joaquin Ezcurra sums it up: “we all do what we can to push forward for the impossible with solidarity with others. We are doing something really different here. Very few people have flown or have tried to fly a balloon – or sculpture – like the Aerocene community is doing. Also, our way of flying is very novel, hence it’s expected to find some difficulties along the way”. The Aerocene community will gather again on June 24-25 for a festival at the historic airship hangar, Hangar Y in Meudon, Paris (details to be announced soon). And as Ezcurra says: “It’s a chapter that adds to a longer and broader history, which hopefully, is only beginning!”