Akron set to explore the skies of Venus on blimp

by Ken Evans

Disclaimer: The following is a work of realistic fiction for our special 2050 issue, published in June 2021. These stories are meant to spark imagination, not forecast the future of Akron. 

In three months’ time, an Akron-born Astronaut, in an Akron-built spacecraft, will lead an international crew to explore the skies of Venus. Not in a traditional landing craft, but in a blimp that will hold the astronauts aloft for the entire mission. This maiden voyage will not only continue the human exploration of worlds beyond Earth, but will also signal a new age for the often dismissed and downtrodden city of Akron, Ohio. 

Venus, similar to Earth in size, was long ignored for exploration because of the runaway greenhouse effect devastating the planet’s surface. With an average temperature of 788 degrees Fahrenheit and atmospheric pressure more than 92 times that of Earth, “Standing on Venus would be like standing a mile below the ocean with temperatures hot enough to melt lead. It’s basically hell!” Captain Kailynn Simonetti, Commander of Laputa 6 Mission says. “However, we are going to stay well above all of that.” 

To get around this, the Laputa 6 Mission will attempt to place the crew not on the surface of Venus but safely in the upper atmosphere. “In Venus’s thick atmosphere, about sixty kilometers above the surface, the temperature and pressure are relatively Earth-like.” It is so Earth-like that when Simonetti steps out of the spacecraft she will not need a pressure suit as they do on the Moon, Mars and Asteroid mines. She will only need an oxygen supply and protection from the clouds of hydrochloric acid. “I might be planning some break dancing,” Simonetti says, smiling. 

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Captain Simonetti explained that this “zone of hospitality” was known for decades but it wasn’t until 2019 when unexplained traces of phosphine gas ー a chemical marker for life ー were found in the atmosphere that scientists started to really make plans to study Venus long term. “The Soviet Union had deployed a few short-lived probes to the planet and had even launched a few balloons to study the atmosphere, but most major exploration had stopped by the late 1980s.” 

Simonetti was chosen for this historic role because of her leadership in developing the fifth generation moon bases and the third generation Mars bases. Her designs and guidance while landing these advanced human habitats, have proved vital for laying the groundwork for what experts say will soon be a transition from mere science stations to moderately self-sufficient colonies on the Moon and Mars. 

But it was her identity as a proud Akronite, and the city’s key role in building the spacecraft, that secured her place as mission commander. Initially, there was controversy at the selection because another Ohioan, Astronaut Neil Armstrong, was the first to set foot on the moon. “Some at NASA felt there shouldn’t be two Ohioans representing such great milestones, but I just think we make great astronauts,” Simonetti explained. In the end, lobbying from local Akron industry leaders and politicians helped keep Simonetti’s place on the flight roster. 

“I told NASA an Akronite better be the captain since it was Akron that built the damn thing. We designed it, built it, and if they would have let me, we would have launched it into space too! But that damn Elon Musk always gets to launch American projects into orbit.” Dr. Michael Smalley, CEO of the recently formed Akron Airship Collective, exclaimed while aggressively poking his desk. 

Akron’s voyage from tire manufacture to airships mecca began In the early 2020s. In 2021 LTA (Lighter Than Air) Research and Exploration began developing airships in the original Akron Air Dock. Following this, a regional planning commission identified that Akron’s association with rigid airships could help bring more of this type of industry to the area. Impractical when developed in the early 1900s, Ridgid Airships ー or Zeppelins, as they’re also known — found a renewed relevance in the early 2020s as technological advances permitted them to lift heavier loads and land without ground crews. This local investment worked to center and grow the new industry in the Akron area. Akron is now home to fifteen large companies that build rigid airships, blimps and other lighter-than-air aircrafts. Akron-built ships can be found aiding in Antarctic research, supporting infrastructure projects in other countries, delivering packages, and even helping to fight the remaining effects of climate change. Dr. Smalley added, “We created this industry and only Akron could produce the technology needed to make it to Venus.”

This regional focus inspired a partnership to form between LTA Research and Exploration, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, and the Ohio Airship Company to seek a NASA contract to build the Virgil Probes. The car-size robotically controlled blimps laid the groundwork for the exploration of Venus throughout the 30s and 40s and proved that the technology was safe to use with a human crew. Dr. Smalley boasted, “The Virgil probes met every mission parameter and exceeded all expectations. Hell, three of them are still working! That’s Akron engineering for you!”

With the backing of its partners, LTA  won the contract to build the Laputa Spacecraft line that would take humans to Venus. Building new facilities throughout the city, the development and construction of the ships have been centered almost exclusively in and around Akron. 

Expanding on the idea in the NASAs H.A.V.O.C (High Altitude Venus Operational Concept) proposal, the spacecraft carrying Simonetti and her crew will dock with the Venus gateway station in orbit. From there, the crew will resupply and rest before detaching the front half of the Laputa 6 and descending into the Venusian atmosphere. At a height of about 80 kilometers, its parachutes will deploy. From here, the heat shield surrounding the spacecraft will drop away and a blimp contained within the body of the craft will inflate. This will allow the ship to level off and float around the upper Venusian atmosphere.

The next step, and most historic part of the mission, will see Laputa 6 dock with the Laputa 5 Test Habitat, currently floating in Venus’s atmosphere. “When I step outside the airdock onto the catwalk between the Laputa 6 and 5, I will be the first person on Venus and the first person in history to visit three different worlds,” explained Simonetti. Adding, “It’s an honor to carry this responsibility.”

After a month-long mission, the crew compartment will drop away from the blimp, fire a return rocket, and make its way back to the Venus Gateway to prepare for the voyage home. 

When asked if she could share what her first words on Venus will be, Simonetti simply smiled and said, “You’ll just have to watch with the rest of the world.” However, she did provide us with a different insight. Ever since the early days of spaceflight, NASA has permitted mission crews to name the ship. Captain Simonetii let us know that the main ship will be called The Gulliver, and the blimp lander will be christened “The Akron.”

Ken Evans finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.

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