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The curtains help to support and shape the envelope and attach the gondola. The flight control surfaces are stiff, movable parts of the blimp that are mounted to the tail. They consist of the rudder and elevators.

The rudder is used to steer the blimp to the starboard or port directions yaw axis. The elevators are used to control the angle of ascent or descent pitch axis of the blimp. The two engines on the blimp provide the thrust necessary to move ahead.

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The engines are turbo-propeller airplane engines that use gasoline fuel and are cooled by air. The engines can generate several hundred horsepower , depending upon the particular blimp. They are located on either side of the gondola. With the engines, blimps can cruise around 30 to 70 mph 48 to kph. The air scoops direct exhaust air from the propellers into the ballonets. This is how the pilots can fill the ballonets with air while in flight. When the engines are not running, electric fans move air into the ballonets.

The pilots must be able to vent air from the ballonets as well as add it.

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This is accomplished by air valves that are located on each ballonet. There are four valves -- two fore, two aft. The pressure of the helium in the envelope is adjusted by changing the amount of air in the ballonets. Normally, blimp pilots do not have to add or remove helium from the envelope. However, there is a helium valve on the envelope that can be used to vent helium should the helium pressure exceed its maximum safe limit. The valve can be opened manually or automatically. The gondola holds the passengers and crew.

Some gondolas have specialized equipment, such as a camera, attached to them. Goodyear's pilots undergo a comprehensive training program prior to FAA certification. In addition to piloting, Goodyear's pilots also serve as ground-support crew, including electronics technicians, mechanics, riggers and administrative personnel. Some blimps like Goodyear are equipped with electric lights for nighttime advertising. In the Goodyear blimp, the night signs consist of a matrix of red, green and blue light-emitting diodes LEDs. This program isn't merely a planner's blue-sky vision. It may be 10 to 15 years away, but it fits nicely into Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's revolution in military affairs.

It gets into defending the high ground, quick strike capability, quantum leaps in technology and the need to focus on Asia. In June, Rumsfeld directed the Pentagon to investigate "suborbital space vehicles" that "would be valuable for conducting rapid global strikes," according to a Pentagon planning document issued under his name.

And as recently as last month, Boeing said it was talking to the Air Force about investing millions of dollars more in Boeing's X Then, in congressional testimony this month, Gen. Michael Ryan, the Air Force chief of staff, acknowledged that a futuristic "space bomber" is being contemplated by the Pentagon's long-range planners. In , the Clinton administration used a line-item veto to force the Air Force into folding its military spaceplane ambitions into the NASA X-plane program. In return for its minimal investment, the Air Force got an agreement from NASA to increase the X's ability to stay on orbit and maneuver, preserving its military utility.

While there was a lot of publicity about the freeze on NASA's X "Venture Star" program this March, two months before the Edwards test, there has been little about the continuation of the military space plane project. John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity. The plan appears to be to sort of acquire a momentum outside of public purview. At other times, that wouldn't be interesting, but with Darth Rumsfeld at the controls, saying, 'We have to control the cosmos,' the practical instrumentalities carry a greater significance.

A Air Force presentation on reusable launch vehicles says that the commercial benefits of such technology would be so great that Americans won't overly concern themselves with "military spin-offs in space.

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A Air Force briefing on the program argues for encouragement of commercial exploitation of the technologies, such as one-day worldwide mail delivery - followed by a push for the military side. Boeing, which has never shied away from discussions of the X as a model for a space bomber, remains optimistic about continued Air Force funding.

The plane is expected to begin drop-testing from a B next year. The vehicle, originally characterized as a mini-spaceplane called "Refly," was marketed as a "reusable weapon delivery platform" in an April 27, , briefing to Air Force officials, according to a Boeing computer presentation obtained by NBC News.

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Boeing described its ability to be launched on a rocket - preferably on one of its new Delta rockets - to fly across the Atlantic, release its conventionally armed re-entry vehicles over the eastern Mediterranean, and strike targets in Iraq before returning to Earth after one orbit. Similarly, a launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California would permit the bombing of targets in Asia on a "once-around" mission, Boeing noted.

A computer mock-up of the "Refly" space plane, taken from a Boeing presentation, shows two conventional weapons -- known as "common aeroshell vehicles" or CAVs -- mounted on the wings. The "Refly" concept lives on in the current XA project. In each scenario, the space bomber is shown fitted with two 1,pound re-entry vehicles that could be fired at ground targets. Something moving at 4 to 6 miles per second from such an altitude has enormous kinetic energy and explosive power. We have enormous capabilities now in terms of re-entry vehicles. So I would argue for purely conventional arms.

Everyone pretty much agrees that nuclear arms do not have much military utility. Indeed, another Boeing computer presentation puts the downward speed of the re-entry vehicle at 24, feet per second - nearly 17, mph - with an accuracy of around 10 feet. Such missions could be complemented by other war-fighting operations - as Martel says, "kill something in space, track something, bomb up against something, refuel something.

John E. Ward Jr. While noting that true global strike capabilities would not be a likely use for first-generation space bombers, he said "using reusable launch vehicles to launch weapons from space would radically change how states conduct war. Martel notes that the real crunch time for the space bomber could come when it moves from development into being a potential threat not just to other nations' targets, but to the U.

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Air Force's Air Combat Command. We are talking in terms of ones and twos and fives. The question is, is there enough special circumstances to justify such expenditures?

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Ten years from now, if we learn that Iran or Iraq or North Korea is preparing a missile for a launch, we would want that ability to move within 90 minutes. It will emerge when the Air Combat Command starts looking at it and asks, 'What are the payoffs, the tradeoffs: Is one of them worth a squadron of F fighters?

Little X-Plane Pushes Bottom Edge of the Envelope

Pike says there is another tradeoff - and one that is not positive for the United States in general. It's been discussed in viewgraph land: physically possible, but not militarily useful. Military planning is no longer threat-driven, but technology-driven. Previously, the question was 'What problem will this solve? America has more than enough hegemony as it is. And frankly, military dominance provokes responses. The easy way is to corrupt them with our culture.

That's the tradeoff. Beyond significant fabrication and assembly results, the program has successfully conducted flight tests of the XA, a vehicle designed to verify the flight dynamics of the X and reduce risk on the program. During the flights, the unmanned XA is dropped from a Chinook helicopter from 15, feet, and it autonomously acquires the runway and lands in a mode similar to a conventional aircraft.

The XA will perform a total of seven drop tests to support the low-speed atmospheric flight dynamics of the X Concurrently, the balance of the X program is making excellent technical progress across the board. In fact, the X lab has recently become operational, with multi-string and redundant hardware now undergoing testing with the first release of the X's flight software.