The metal skeleton of the Akron, under construction for the Navy at the Goodyear hangar in the 1930s.Library of Congress

Being a billionaire means sometimes having a secret side-project big enough to necessitate an actual NASA hangar. That appears to be the case for the Google co-founder Sergey Brin, anyway.

Brin is building a huge airship inside of Hangar 2 at the NASA Ames Research Center, according to a report from Bloomberg, but it’s unclear whether the covert project is a business effort, a very impressive hobby, or something else. (Brin didn’t respond to my request for an interview. “Sorry, I don't have anything to say about this topic right now,” he told Bloomberg in an email.)

If you’re like me, your first response is probably: Whoa. And then, immediately: Why? Why on Earth would anyone, in 2017, build a dirigible?

One reason is fuel efficiency, suggests Bloomberg, which says the head of Brin’s secret project once described plans for a cargo-hauling blimp that would be more fuel efficient than a plane or even a truck.

But there’s still the question of why zeppelins, a public fascination in the days before aviation, still loom so large in modern culture.

A 1910 photograph shows a dirigible in flight. (Library of Congress)

Today, the zeppelin evokes an ominous moment in 20th-century history. When the Hindenburg burst into flames in 1937, it was seared into collective memory with vast newspaper coverage, ghastly newsreel footage, and Herbert Morrison's heartfelt eyewitness radio report for the Chicago news station WLS in Chicago. (“Oh, the humanity! ... I can hardly breathe ...  I’ve lost my voice. This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.”)

Before the Hindenburg crashed, however, it was a marvel of transatlantic flight. This was an era when the modern metropolis was conceived of as incomplete without its own high-profile dirigible dock. The zeppelin mooring station atop the Empire State Building was never actually used; the plan was mostly a publicity stunt for the Art Deco skyscraper.

Giant airships did occasionally hover over Manhattan in the early 1930s, however. In one case, the dirigible Columbia delivered a bundle of newspapers across town. According to newspaper accounts from the era, New Yorkers were accustomed to seeing the Columbia’s red neon glow above the city’s night sky. Goodyear, which owned the airship, also offered $3 sightseeing flights. It crashed, killing one mechanic, in 1932.  

News of the Hindenberg disaster appeared in the May 7, 1937 issue of an Oregon newspaper. (Newspapers.com)

The public’s faith in the technology began to sour. By the time the 1940s rolled around, with the rise of aviation and the world’s technological efforts trained on World War II, dirigibles quickly went out of fashion. The skies had indeed become a prominent stage in the theater of war, but attacks were carried out by dive-bombing airplane fighter pilots—not balloon-men. An earlier generation’s prediction, that great warships would fire at each other among the clouds, had not come to pass.

That was the belief in the 1880s, when steerable dirigibles were widely seen as an inevitable advance in the field of military aeronautics. Even then, the use of balloons in warfare was “as old as the invention of the airship itself,” The New York Times reported in 1885. “Up to this time, it has been thought sufficient to use balloons either for observation—as at Yorktown in our civil war—or for carrying messages and messengers out of a besieged town, as during the German siege of Paris,” the Times wrote, referring to the 1870 siege during the Franco-Prussian War.

That conflict is what inspired Charles Renard, the famous French military engineer, to begin his airship experiments. (By then it had been a century since another famous French aeronaut, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, made headlines with his balloon flight over the English Channel, and little had changed in airship technology.) So it was in this period, during the Belle Époque, that a fascination with Renard and his war balloons translated into a broader cultural captivation with dirigibles. Suddenly, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 1835 poem, “Prophecy,” had new resonance: “For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see, Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be; Saw the heaven fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails, Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales.”

Dirigibles became a go-to metaphor for futurism, occupying a space in the popular imagination that would eventually make way for flying cars, jet packs, space elevators, and driverless vehicles. In the late 19th century, zeppelins appeared in newspaper headlines and artists’ renderings of the future like dreamy industrial clouds. “Like the hot-air balloons that preceded it and the wing-thrusted planes that would render it all but obsolete, the dirigible carried a hope for a future that might have been but, finally, was not,” my colleague Megan Garber wrote in 2012, “a dream and a demise that were as inevitable as humans seeking the sky.”

The finality of the dirigible’s demise, however, is apparently a matter of debate. They had enough of a comeback moment in the early 1980s to attract a flurry of attention. Revive-the-dirigible projects seem to pop up with just enough regularity that they never go away.

Which brings us back to Brin and his secret zeppelin, apparently taking form somewhere in the shade of a massive hangar under the California sky. The mystery of Brin’s motivations only highlights the parallel to the golden era of dirigibles, when the intrepidity of the aeronaut was seen as equal parts heroic and insane. Their balloons may have been mere scientific toys. Perhaps that’s all Brin is after. Either way, the promise of what the airship might have become has kept generations of great minds transfixed by the skies.

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