The journey to this place (the Montgolfier Balloon launch site) in this park (Chatfield State Park south of Denver) on this day in 2014 began back in 1997 when my wife, Kim, and I embarked on a road trip from Denver, CO to Cape Canaveral, FL to watch the October launch of NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft.
The Cassini launch vehicle as well as a major portion of the Cassini Spacecraft were built under NASA contract in Waterton, CO just 3 miles south of this balloon launch site. From 1993 to 1997, I was part of the team that designed and constructed the primary spacecraft structure & propulsion system for the Cassini Spacecraft. Ironically I passed this balloon launch site every day on my way to and from work during those years. I recall being fascinated and intrigued by the colorful balloons launch from this site, but was never motivated enough to make a flight myself.
After the Cassini spacecraft was launched, it traveled for 7 years through space before arriving safely at Saturn, the only ringed-planet in our solar system. To me, the Cassini Spacecraft represents a combination of human curiosity (that insatiable need of humans to ask questions) and the amazing human capability to shape Earth resources into tools (extensions of the human capabilities) intended to answer those questions. This particular mechanical human creation is still orbiting Saturn today, watching and collecting scientific information and sending back amazing pictures of rings and moons as part of our perpetual quest for a better understanding of how the Universe works.
On our way through New Mexico in 1997, we stopped for the evening in Santa Fe and learned that the Albuquerque International Balloon festival was having their Mass Ascension the following morning at sunrise.
And what a show that was. Hundreds of colorful glowing balloons, unique in shape and pattern, began inflating and lifting off in what seemed to be an endless wave of color from the west to the eastern edge of the launch field. Inflatable houses, cartoon characters, numerous representations of the animal kingdom as well as the standard balloons all lifted off and took advantage of the morning’s gentle breeze from the east to float westward into the early morning dawn.
As first-time spectators, overwhelmed by this visual stimulation, we wandered among the rows and rows of these soon to be lighter-than-air creations. It was a perfectly still morning except for the manufactured breeze from the mechanical fans that were being used to initially inflate the folded flattened fabric. Only after their basic shape began to appear were the propane burners ignited with a startling roar that shot flames 5-10 feet into the limp still grounded expanding soon-to-be balloons. The hot combustion gases combined with the cool air in the balloon to create a light warm mixture of air that gently lifted these monstrous fabric forms off the ground and in doing so up-righted their attached gondolas. Once upright, the flight crew quickly climbed over the sides into the basket and within seconds the burners were full on. As flames of hot gas replaced the remaining cooler ambient air, each gondola separated from the ground and headed upward. We watched liftoff after liftoff. Each followed a slow but steady ascent until the balloon and basket became small enough to fit inside a camera. In a matter of minutes, they shrank in size so several would fit within a single snapshot. But there were still more balloons on the ground just coming alive a short distance away in the next row.
What fun that event was. And that’s when I confessed to my companion, “Someday I would like to try a flight in one of those balloons.” And the Journey began.
Five years later, when I was approaching my 60th birthday, we were planning a trip back east to visit family. Kim clandestinely sent a note to my mother requesting that she make a reservation for a hot air balloon ride for me as a surprise birthday present. Months later I learned my mother had looked into it, but didn’t follow through with an actual reservation because she felt it was too expensive. You have to understand that my parents were very frugal and a ride in a balloon was considered to be a frivolous activity.
Fast forward to 2009. Kim, suffering from several chronic illnesses, was hospitalized with pneumonia in August and spent a week in the ICU at Swedish Hospital. When she was released and able to return home, Kim made a call to her friend Pam (unbeknownst to me) with a request that Pam line up a hot air balloon ride for my upcoming 67th birthday. Kim explained to Pam that she just didn’t have the energy to make all the arrangements, but would reimburse Pam for the reservation. However, before Pam was able to make the arrangements, Kim passed away unexpectedly.
Three years later, Debra (also a good friend of Kim’s) and Jeff invited me to dinner at their home in Frisco, CO for my 70th birthday. Pam was also invited and together they presented me with a gift certificate for a balloon ride. That was when Pam first disclosed the story about Kim’s request years earlier. Words cannot describe what is was like to receive this totally unexpected gift.
This year, in celebration of my 72nd birthday, I finally scheduled that hot air balloon ride. It was an experience that had been on my “list of things to do someday” for 17 years. And it turned out to be a truly delightful and enlightening adventure made possible thanks to kind and generous friends – an experience I’d like to share with a few photos and observations.
When we caught a breeze that was headed north we turned and could see the Denver skyline in the distance probably some 20 miles away. Although it was mid-October, we still haven’t had a killing frost so the fall color was in full display.
After an hour or so in the air, our pilot noted the amount of fuel remaining and began looking for place to set down. The State Park where we began our flight was large enough to provide good landing areas as well. So we began our descent, prepared for a possible hard landing but instead experienced a gentle touch down, followed by three small hops that moved us to less than 10 feet from a great access road. Within a few minutes the chase van appeared over a hill and the crew helped us dump the remaining air from the balloon envelop, stow it and load the equipment into the Van. It was a short ride back to the launch area where we began a couple hours earlier.
Things I learned on this journey:
A hot air balloon is considered a lighter-than-air craft. It is temporarily lighter-than-air thanks to the expenditure of energy. In our case, a finite supply of onboard propane was being burned to temporarily generate hot gas that provided the buoyancy for us to remain afloat in the atmosphere.
The pilot does have limited control as long as there is adequate fuel to stay aloft and maintain the freedom to ascend (and avoid obstacles) in a timely manner. Our astute pilot monitored the amount of remaining fuel throughout the flight and was careful to land the craft safely before depleting all the craft’s energy. Running out of propane even at a 2000 feet altitude is not a good thing. As a balloon passenger I was not thinking about how much fuel there was.
Sermonette: Parallels / Metaphors in real life?
When I was traveling in a hot air balloon with the wind, I did not perceive any wind nor was I aware of the intensity of the wind (or its effects) on the ground below. As a balloon passenger, the air around me appeared deceptively calm.
When I float through life carried along by the wind current of my human-created anthropocentric social system, Life seems relatively calm. I don’t fully perceive the effects of this system on those not flying along with me. The wind that is carrying me along smoothly (a wind I can’t even sense) might be a 75 MPH wind causing destruction to those on the ground below. Unless I look carefully at what is happening outside the balloon, I wouldn’t know.
I observed that before venturing into the sky, our astute pilot released a small “trial balloon” and intently watched it climb into the sky. This unpopulated proxy provides useful insights into what to expect during the initial ascent of the populated craft. The pilot knows that winds aloft can be a bitch. Flights are routinely postponed if the trial balloon indicates the wind is too extreme for safe flying.
The space industry borrowed the wisdom of floating a trial balloon before important rocket launches. The initial Cassini launch was scheduled for Oct 13, 1997. A trial balloon measured high shear forces in the winds aloft just prior to lift-off so the launch was postponed. It was rescheduled for October 15th and launched with no problem.
As we look back over 10,000 years of human historical records, we can observe countless trial balloons that have been released into various human-created social systems. From those observations, new social systems emerged that typically were intended to be better or at least address new concerns or a changing environment.
The question now is whether or not we are going to actually use these observations from previous trial balloons of past civil societies before launching 7 billion people into the winds of existing 21st century social systems? Can we learn from all these prior “social system” experiments? What we 7 billion people are about to undertake may be for all the marbles.
Our behavior over the past two centuries – specifically our frantic burning of finite reserves of ancient hydrocarbons (aka the Great Burning), and the dumping this once sequestered carbon back into our common atmosphere – has been effectively our most recent trial balloon. We created a social system that encourages the rapid increase in concentration of green house gases (e.g. CO2 – carbon dioxide; CH4 – methane, etc.) in the atmosphere. This most recent trial balloon clearly indicates our behavior is creating an ill wind. We made the system that produces this ill wind; we can change it. We can transition to inexhaustible non-polluting sources of energy.
Yes, I would recommend a hot air balloon ride to all my friends. It’s fun, exhilarating, reasonably safe (assuming you drive carefully to the launch site) and can be enlightening when we use it to gain a different perspective on Life. But I wouldn’t recommend a journey that wanders around for 17 years before climbing aboard (like mine). We don’t have that much time to waste.
Were it not for family and friends, I would not have had this experience. I am forever grateful for their kindness, persistence and generosity.