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(Note: The background section of this page uses most of the words Terra Futura's page on orbital ascenders to save time.)
In 1783, the first hot-air balloon ride occurred. There was one problem though. How would a lighter-than-air aircraft move against the wind? In 1852, Henri Giffard built a powered hydrogen balloon which a steam engine. The steam engine was too weak to handle the wind. Steam engines were also too heavy. Even with lighter internal combustion engines, the airships were still too small. The first practical passenger airship was design by Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin in 1893. For 44 years afterwards, airships were transporting passengers around the world. Then, in 1937, a zeppelin called the Hindenburg burst into flames. It would be a while afterwards before airships went back into passenger service. Hybrid airships running on helium were an early attempt.
A hybrid airship got most of its lift from the helium it carried. The engines were there for the airship to become airborne. With that, hybrid airships could land like airplanes, and maintenance and loading and unloading of cargo were easier. The piston engines could rotate to change direction. Unfortunately, hybrid airships had problems. They were not aerodynamic. Control was difficult. The weather was capable of messing them up. Hybrid airships never became popular. More advanced full airships would take there place.
Advanced airships like the Aeroscraft and Strato Cruiser had a new aerodynamic shape. This made them faster. In addition to the rudder, there was also outrigger wings which provided stability and vector thrust. They could spin. All of these increased efficiency and speed. Lighter materials like carbon fiber composites, carbon nanotubes, and graphene increased efficiency and speed even further. Some airships had solar panels on the roof for extra power. Some airship designs for construction and hotel use had a vertical configuration for more stability, especially since speed was not important. Some horizontal airships had a dynamic buoyancy system on internal cylindrical bladders that were inflated and deflated for more stability. This was expensive and rare. Over the course of the 21st century airships were entering the mainstream again, but there was a problem. The helium resources on Earth were running out. In the late 21st century, helium was replaced with a vacuum.
With advanced materials, vacuum airships became possible. Vaccuum airships were just like more conventional airships but without the lifting gases. The vacuum allowed the airships to lift higher than even the Hindenburg. The lifting chambers were reinforced cylinders on some models. On other models, they were geodesic spheres. These were anchored to the main skeleton. Atmospheric pressure was kept out. A dynamic buoyancy system was standard on this kind of airship. When there was leak, the airship would implode violently. Safety belts were onboard if that emergency ever happened. The only expense was in the construction. Airships, by this time, had many applications.
The stratellite was first developed by Sanswire. A stratellite could hover above 20 kilometers. That was above the jet stream and most weather. They could be used in an area of 480,000 square kilometers. Lag times were many times less than satellites, and the area was larger than a transmission tower on the ground. Carbon fiber composites were used to build the stratellite. With solar cells on top that powered the batteries, they could stay in the air longer. The best stratellite ever lasted for 10 years before maintenance. Stratellites were cheaper to construct and maintain than transmission towers. Fewer stratellites were needed. They could be used for cell phones, surveillance, etc. They were common in the 21st century. The concept of stratellites was related another concept called the stratostation.
Stratostations were like space stations in every way but one. They flew in the upper atmosphere. This incurred advantages. One was that Earth's gravity still had an effect on the people living inside, though this also meant that stratonauts would probably fall to death if completely separated from the stratostation which jet packs were required if so. Another was that the stratostation could land safely on the ground for maintenance. Like stratellites, stratostations could remain in one place at any given time. This made them useful. JP Aerospace was the first company to build stratostations. JP Aerospace built stratostations for the of launching orbital ascender airships.
Using airships to reach space was not new. During the Cold War, the United States invented the rockoon, short for rocket balloon. The launch of a rockoon took hours, if not days, to occur. By contrast, an orbital ascender airship was launched from a stratostation. This was the concept formulated by JP Aerospace for future space travel. The orbital ascender had a volume 7 times bigger than the Hindenburg. The design was a V shape which made it more aerodynamic. The original engines were hybrid chemical/electric rockets. Later designs used ion thrusters. Solar cells as thin as graphene provided extra power. Wait a minute, the solar cells and the gas envelope itself were made of graphene. Even so, they were impractical for ground-based construction. They were built at the stratostation. The high radiation in space meant that the orbital ascender required heavy shielding for its passengers. Orbital ascender airships could also carry several hundred kilograms. This was the cheapest method of getting into orbit. Orbital ascender airships were not the only ships launched from stratostations. There were also helicarriers.
Tech Level: 12-13
In Marvel's The Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D. is based out of an air-based aircraft carrier called the helicarrier. The mat seem like science fiction. However, in the 1930s, attempts were made to convert airships into air-based aircraft carriers. The USS Akron was the prototype helicarrier. Unfortunately, a number of logistic and operational problems as well as the loss of the Hindenburg killed the helicarrier during World War II. In the late 21st century, the helicarrier was revived thanks to the revival of airships. With advanced materials, helicarriers were larger than the Akron. With vaccuum bags, a helicarrier could go very high. These airship helicarriers were built for carrying UAVs. Fighter planes were too heavy. Advanced computer technology and satellites reduced the weight of the helicarrier. The drones were battery-powered reducing the need for fuel. Aside from drones, the helicarrier carried missiles. When attacked, the drones and missiles could be used to defend the helicarrier. The helicarrier was slow. Too slow to escape on time. But it could go anywhere in a few days. Helicarriers were deployed in squadrons. Solar cells and hydrogen fuel cells provided power for the airship helicarrier. Helicarriers would not carry fighter jets until the graviton was discovered. This discovery led to the gravitic repulsor. This invention eliminated the need for wheels. When applied to the helicarrier, it could now carry larger aircraft. The air/vaccuum bag became obsolete. Gravitic helicarriers looked like sea-based aircraft carriers only in the air. They could carry fighter planes. They could even carry commercial air and spacecraft. These helicarriers revolutionized warfare.