In the dunes of White Sands desert, on Sunday 8th November 2015, for the first time in the world, a registered solar heat powered balloon carrying a human person floated for more than 2 hours without touching ground and without burning any gas.
Tomás Saraceno’s work is as conceptually rich as it is aesthetically captivating. His pursuit of a borderless existence in the sky unfolds in a bewitching succession of floating structures, transparent aerial habitations, and human-scale suspended webs. Saraceno’s artistic visions seek to defy the constraints – social, technological, political and cultural – that bind us to a ground-based, bordered, fossil-fuelled, restricted existence. And he underpins these visions with relentless research, technical experimentation and scientific collaborations.
Saraceno’s sculpture Aerocene last week had its pilot flight in the dramatic landscape White Sands desert, New Mexico, in an event organised by the Rubin Center for the Visual Arts in El Paso, curated by my former colleague Rob La Frenais with Tomas Saraceno Studio. This extraordinary flight marked the first milestone in a Saraceno’s new project the Aerocene, which takes forward his vision in the flights of aerosolar sculptures that are inflated by air, lifted by the heat of the sun alone, and transported by the wind.
The artist has been experimenting with solar balloons for some years, driven by his dream of habitations in space without polluting the atmosphere with black carbon. Black carbon particles (soot) are emitted by hydrocarbon-fueled rockets and a recent scientific study has indicated that, if the space transport industry grows significantly in coming years, this black carbon could contribute to global climate change. Emissions from 1,000 private rocket launches a year would persist high in the stratosphere, potentially greatly altering global atmospheric circulation and distributions of ozone and contributing to polar temperature rises and sea ice melt.
Saraceno’s siting his new launch in the New Mexico White Sands desert area – where the first rocket launches in the United States were made and where the first tourist spaceport in the world is located – is therefore particularly significant.
Prior to the launch, Saraceno put out a call for people to be part of a collaborative action to help the launch of his new solar balloon. The experimental flight was preceded by a conference ‘Space Without Rockets’ at the Rubin Center, organized to explore the vision, potential and contexts for the project.
On the morning of Sunday 8 November, around 25 people, including Saraceno’s team of engineers and balloonists, arrived well before dawn at the White Sands Missile Range entry point for security clearance by the US Army (having previously submitted our passport information), which controls a large part of the White Sands area.
We drove out in a convoy of cars across the desert, as twilight spread across the flat landscape. After an hour’s driving, with the sun coming up over the distant mountains, we arrived in the launch site in the heart of the white sand dunes.
Saraceno’s black solar balloon was stretched out across the white sand, partially inflated with air. It lay rather limply and lop-sided in the cool dawn air, awaiting the full power of the sun’s heat to emerge. Miraculously, despite an ominous weather forecast that had made some of us a little reluctant to get out of our warm El Paso hotel beds at 3am in the morning, the sky was clear and nor was there a breath of wind.
The Aerocene sculpture materializes more than ten years of research by Saraceno and his team on material properties, thermodynamics and atmospheric science. In principle, as the sun warms the air within the balloon, the air molecules becomes less dense than the outside air, causing the balloon to rise without the burning of propane or the use of lighter-than-air gases (helium or hydrogen).
The flight of this prototype balloon was planned as a tethered flight, always connected to the ground by ropes, as its venting and control had not been tested. The radical action was to lift a person off the ground by the power of the sun itself. In the early morning, the balloon looked as though it could barely lift itself, let alone a person. But, as the desert heat gathered force and the sun’s energy bounced back off the dazzling white sand into the balloon, adding to the heating effect, the balloon gathered strength. With Marija, an experienced balloonist from Croatia, suspended by a skydiver harness below the balloon, it lifted off the ground, controlled by the volunteers holding its ropes. A gentle breeze moved the balloon along the dunes and between them.
As the sun rose further, the balloon’s strength increased, lifting Marija higher. Danja from the Studio took Marija’s place and was allowed to rise to a height of perhaps 100 feet. The balloon strained against its tethers. Six people hung onto each rope to prevent the balloon taking off. Tomas was finally persuaded to take his place below the balloon, and a few others followed him, careful checks on the harness and attachments taking places each time. The balloon became a formidable beast striving to rush upwards to its home in the blue sky. More people joined the ropes to control it. After a few hours, the expert balloonists decided it had become too powerful to control and, after some less than successful testing of the venting, the balloon was gradually brought to the ground and emptied of its blisteringly hot air.
Saraceno’s fascination for structures in the sky stems from his family’s exile from Argentina (when the artist was a baby) because of the Perón dictatorship. When he returned there ten years later, he felt it was no longer his home, a place where he didn’t belong. Since then, he has travelled a lot and has become interested in challenging how the nations, divisions and borders we inhabit are created on Planet Earth.
His conceptual challenge of the territorialisation of the earth by a move into the sky seems particularly relevant at this time, Europe’s new border crisis, and appropriate for exploration in El Paso, situated on the tense border between Mexico and the USA. Saraceno’s is a utopian project, both in terms of finding a new way of existing borderless, and of reaching the skies and space without polluting them.
But another factor seems apparent in the Aerocene’s connection to a more elemental and human-centered mode of existence. Our severe control over our environment and the elements (as I realised shivering in the glacial air conditioned terminal of Houston airport looking out over a shimmering landscape on my connection to El Paso) has physical and environmental impacts, as detrimental to us, I suggest, as they are beneficial.
Suspended above the desert under a vast black solar balloon, I could feel the sun burning my face, the slight breeze moving me gently, the force of the balloon tugging upwards. I looked out over a white desert dazzling under a violently blue sky, and at the scraps of vegetation struggling in this landscape, and felt the immediacy of the possibility of flying up and off in whatever direction – and across whatever border – the elements might choose, should my colleagues on the ground let go of those two slight ropes. It was an intensely sensorial experience that left me feeling profoundly alive.