America's aviation test bed just became the site of Disney/PIXAR fantasy turned reality when a National Geographic group launched a house, modeled after the one in the movie "Up," into the air tethered to a colorful cluster of weather balloons.
The house was really just a plywood shell of a habitable home, little more than a life-sized doll house sans carpeting and wallpaper. Nevertheless, it took at least 300 helium-filled weather balloons to get it off the ground.
Each brightly-colored weather balloon took an entire large helium tank to be filled. An 8 foot diameter inflated spherical weather balloon, like the kind the NatGeo guys were using, has a volume of 268 cubic feet. According to this Southern California helium supplier, a large helium tank holds about 244 cubic feet. That's a lot of helium. That means to fill 300 weather balloons, it took at least 300 large tanks of helium. In the video up top, while one of the guys from the show is being interviewed, you can see expended helium tank carcasses scattered on the desert behind him.
It makes me wonder: With today's shortage of helium, was this stunt really necessary? You tell me. I'm torn. On one hand, it was very cool. On the other hand, that's a lot of helium. Seventy-three thousand cubic feet of helium -- enough helium to fill up over 300,000 9-inch party balloons!
Helium is the second most abundant element in the Universe. However, because it is also the second lightest element in the Universe, much of it has evaporated and escaped from our planet. The gas is formed as a byproduct of nuclear fusion of hydrogen in larger stars. It is also created slowly by the radioactive decay of some rocks on Earth. Most of it, however, was created during the Big Bang.
Helium is used in cryogenics, the study of materials at very cold temperatures, and to cool superconducting magnets, notably in MRI scanners, among many other Earthly uses. Though I can't pin down a numerical estimate of how much helium is left on Earth, estimates are that we will run out sometime in the next few decades. The Silver Lining? We may one day be able to mine helium from our two helium-rich neighbors: Uranus and Neptune.
Back in the California high desert, the "Up"-inspired house flew for about and hour and rose to an altitude of 10,000 ft. It's unclear from the video whether or not there was anyone in the house while it was flying. According to stories on the web (here's one, for example), the stunt was done to promote an upcoming new show on the National Geographic Channel called, "How Hard Can it Be?" Sounds pretty awesome, but I can't find anything about the show itself anywhere on the 'net. I guess we'll have to keep our eyes and ears tuned in for more and to see for ourselves whether or not the stunt was worth it.