Solar Impulse: Why It Reminds Me of Voyager

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Back in the blissfully simple days of 1986, before cable news became the 24-hour din it is today, I recall watching some coverage of Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager landing the Voyager back at Edwards Air Force base, where they had begun their round-the-world flight nine days earlier. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff had been adapted into a hit film three years earlier and Gen. Chuck Yeager was still a media darling, so naturally the network news tapped him for commentary.

Not the best choice, it turned out. I recall him making a distinctly ungenerous comment when asked by the anchor what the flight meant. Basically nothing, he said. Just a stunt. A B-52 had done the same thing in 1957 and that one mattered because it demonstrated American might and capability and … blah, blah, blah. Although Yeager was right about the Voyager’s lasting technical contribution, he lacked the perspicuity to understand Voyager’s real achievement: a small, talented and determined team rising to a difficult challenge and achieving success with few resources and simple solutions. Burt and Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager had a team behind them all right, but not the entire faith and credit of the U.S. government funding a B-52 project.

This bit of history is being repeated this week as the Solar Impulse crawls its way across the Pacific at 26 knots. If you haven’t been following this on the organization’s website,I highly recommend doing so for reasons I’ll get to in a moment. Ostensibly, the Solar Impulse project is to highlight the promising future of clean energy and what better way to do that than with a high-profile flight in a gossamer-light airplane powered by the sun? I’ll nod to the PR value without really believing it because once again, I think the real story here is of a team solving difficult engineering problems with creative solutions and putting it right out there on the world stage—live, no less, in a way never done before. While Voyager was about airplanes and flying, Solar Impulse is about aspirational technology applied to something that just happens to fly. At that, it’s no less an inspiration than Voyager was.

One reason I think that is how the organization is self-covering this flight on a sophisticated multi-media website. You can log in at any hour of the day and get a live update on Solar Impulse’s position, altitude, speed, battery state and pilot physiology—all in HD and with detailed daily summaries of how the flight is going with graphics that are lucid, timely and to the point. They’re using this technology to its fullest to tell a compelling story just as it unfolds in technical detail that anyone can understand.Today, for example, pilot Andre Borschberg surpassed Steve Fossett’s standing record for the longest unrefueled solo flight of 76 hours. He’ll best it considerably by the time he reaches Hawaii in the next couple of days. He’s doing that by resting for a series of 20-minute catnaps.

If the flight and the site tracking it are meant to be inspirational for people interested in aviation or energy technology, I’d say it succeeds better at the latter than the former, but it succeeds nonetheless. It’s one thing to read a news brief explaining how the airplane climbs cyclically to nearly 30,000 feet to gain potential energy and then descends at night to expend it. But it’s quite another to see that in an accurate graph in real time and to realize Borschberg is spending many hours above 25,000 feet in an unheated, unpressurized cabin. Never mind that it’s being propelled along by photons from 93 million miles away. This project is going to do exactly what it’s intended to: hook some smart kids on science and engineering. Kinda makes me wish I was 12 again. No, not just acting like a 12-year-old, but actually really that age. I could stand a do-over on my crappy career in math.

Happy 4th

And while on the subject of my misspent youth, one of my fondest memories as a child was going to the fireworks stand and returning with a big paper bag full of dangerous stuff. And not the wimpy excuses for fireworks sold today, but military grade: Cherry Bombs, M-80s and Roman Candles that could—and did—take out the window in the neighbors’ pickup. Sigh. I miss the 1950s.

Here in Florida, you can still buy fireworks, albeit the tame variety. Glow worms and smoke bombs are on the legal list. Pffft. But you can buy stronger stuff, like rockets, fountains and even Black Cats. We have this amusing little dance where you’re required to sign a waiver attesting that what you’re buying will be used on your farm or your fish hatchery to scare off animals and that any other use is unlawful. This is what happens when your state legislature is populated by used car salesmen and disbarred lawyers with property in the Bahamas.

As a result, my neighborhood sounds like Tet from mid-afternoon until the wee hours. This 4th, I have resolved to hold my own and came back from the local fireworks store with a nice variety. Not that I recommend doing any of this. In fact, you definitely should not. But by dint of long experience, I consider myself a professional. And whether you believe that or not, I wish you a happy and safe 4th of July.

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