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Chair floats to final frontier

Toshiba UK
Click for video: An armchair floats to the edge of space in Toshiba's "Space

Chair Project" commercial. Click on the image toŠsee Toshiba's video on YouTube.

Space ballooning hits new heights in an HDTV commercial showing a simple armchair floating against the backdrop of our curving planet, almost 100,000 feet above the ground. When you watch the video, the first thought that comes to mind is, "Wow, that's cool!" And the second thought is probably, "How the heck did they do that?"

"Usually a project like this takes a year or a year and a half to pull together," John Powell, founder of California-based JP Aerospace and one of the key guys behind the Space Chair Project, told me. "But they needed this pulled together in four months."

"They" refers to Toshiba UK and Grey London, the marketing agency that pulled off the project. The idea was to do something remarkable that would tout Toshiba's HD cameras and LCD displays as "armchair viewing, redefined."

JP Aerospace was asked to build a rig that could take the chair and two miniaturized cameras to the edge of space. Powell and his fellow high-altitudeŠballoon experimentersŠhad done similar magic tricks in past years for Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel projects. This was ambitious even by JP Aerospace's standards, however.ŠThe job becameŠeven more ambitious when the videographers ended up asking for four separate rigs - essentially, "a backup for a backup for a backup," Powell said.

He declined to say how much JP Aerospace was paid for the project, but he noted that the parts alone for each rig cost tens of thousands of dollars. "This was the only big commercial project we did this year, but it paid like it was two," Powell said.

The JP Aerospace blog goes into detail about howŠeach rig was constructed: Basically, the team built frameworks that could be suspended from the high-altitude balloons. The chair was suspended on lines from the rig's framework. Powell said each chairŠweighed just three and a half pounds because it was built out of balsa wood.

"It was amazing - it looked like a real chair," Powell told me. "Our biggest worry was that someone would sit on one of them."

The cameras wereŠattached to the rig so that one looked down at the chair and one got a shot from the front. Adding it all up, each rig weighed about 22 pounds (10 kilograms).

WithŠall the regulatory approvalsŠin hand, JP Aerospace's team went out to Nevada's Black Rock Desert and sent up the four rigged-up balloons, one at a time, over the weekend of Sept. 26-27.ŠPowell joked thatŠthe filmmakers for the commercial and the "making of the commercial" video clip far outnumbered his balloon-handlers.

Toshiba UK
Click for video: JP Aerospace's team launches a high-altitude balloon from

Nevada's Black Rock Desert, with chair attached. Click on the image to watchŠthe

"Making of Space ChairŠvideo on YouTube.

The chairs rose to heights ranging from 82,000 to 99,200 feet, Powell said. Each flight lasted a little more than two hours: 100 minutes up, and about 30 minutes down.

Once the balloons got up to their maximum height, the material from which they were made chilled down to the point that it became as delicate and brittle as glass. Eventually,Šof course, the balloons popped due to the stress, and the rigs started falling throughŠnear-vacuum at speeds faster than Mach 1. As the atmosphere thickened, the fall slowed.ŠAt the end of all four flights, the parachutes opened - and all the cameras were recovered intact. No backup needed.

"They ended up with about 16 hours of footage for a 60-second commercial," Powell said.

The video chips were rushed out of the desert to begin the editing process, and the rest is television (and marketing) history. Toshiba even set up a promotional Web site to let users guess where the chairs would land.

Powell said the money earned from the project will be plowed back into JP Aerospace. In recent years, the near-space imaging business has been very, very good to Powell and his semi-pro team. "The imagery is what's really paying the bills. ... We're the only aerospace company to ever be 30 years in the black," he said.

Powell said there's been more interest in high-altitude imagery, due to a movement away from computer-generated imagery in commercials and movies.Š"They could have CGI'd a chair going up there," he said of theŠToshiba filmmakers, "but they wanted the real thing."Š

High-altitude imaging is also increasingly going low-cost. For example, there's the MIT student group thatŠrecentlyŠsent an Earth-imaging camera almost as high as JP Aerospace's balloons did for just $150. But Powell said his operation is on a "whole next level," where commercial clients expect to get total reliability and just the right shot for their needs.

Powell and hisŠcolleagues don't expect to limit themselves to commercials shot at 100,000 feet. Their eventual goal is to develop airships capable of going all the way to orbit. Right now JP Aerospace is working on a 35-foot-long Tandem airship that could rise well beyond the 100,000-foot level. The team is also looking into a "rockoon" launch system that would use high-altitude platforms as rocket launch pads.

"Each test that we've done is a test for Airship To Orbit," Powell said.

I first mentioned the Airship To Orbit concept more than five years ago, and since then the effort has weathered its share of ups and downs. Do you think it's an idea whose time has not yet come, but will someday? Or is the dream doomed to deflate? Feel free to weigh in with your pros and cons in the comment section below.

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