Riding airships into orbit.

Discovery is looking up to a way to get satellites into orbit using balloons instead of rockets:

…[T]he now-retired NASA space shuttle was the Hindenburg of the space age. Like the zeppelins, the shuttles were a limited fleet, extremely weather-sensitive, fragile, expensive, required huge ground support crews, and were ultimately retired after two deadly accidents.

In the post-shuttle era, private companies are competing to make human access to space comparatively simpler and affordable.

But it’s time to think of something other than rockets for passenger travel into orbit. To me, floating up to a sky-city platform at 200,000 feet is more leisurely than being strapped into a rocket that zips you to the edge of space and back in 25 minutes.

This is what the folks at JP Aerospace are dreaming about: The first part of their space balloon infrastructure is an atmospheric airship that would ascend to 140,000 feet. The vehicle is operated by a crew of three and can be configured for cargo or passengers. The hybrid design, using a combination of buoyancy and aerodynamic lift to fly, is driven by propellers that operate in near-vacuum conditions.

The second part of the architecture is a suborbital platform called Dark Sky Station (DSS). It is permanently crewed and parked at 140,000 feet. This sky-high truck stop is the destination of the atmospheric airship and the departure port for the orbital airship. Initially, the DSS will be the construction facility for large orbital vehicles.

The third part of the architecture is an airship/dynamic vehicle that flies directly to orbit. This V-shaped craft is humongous in order to utilize what’s left of the rarefied atmosphere. It is at least four times the length of an oil supertanker! The mega-mothership uses buoyancy to climb to 200,000 feet. From there it uses solar-electric propulsion to slowly accelerate continuously for several days as it spirals up to low Earth orbit.

It’s not fast – but it’s cheap. And it seems like it’ll work.