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A ride costs $200 to $1,000, depending on duration. (Big Moving Pictures)

Z2

The latest in sightseeing tours, brought to you by Count Ferdinand Von Zeppelin.

The large sloping picture windows give spectacular 180-degree views. Almost directly below, a large pod of dolphins in a feeding spree churned the ocean to white froth.

The roomy gondola (equipped with a head) carries 12 passengers plus two crew members. Sightseers are encouraged to walk around and even stick their heads out of ports in the forward windows in the mild slipstream. The most common description: "Like riding on a cloud."

Janice Martinson, guest services representative, acts as combination tour guide and flight attendant. "We’ve had people who just wanted the experience of floating, people who want to fly over their house," she says. "We’ve had people celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, and some chartered the entire ship for their party. We’ve had people propose. One couple got married aboard while we circled near the Golden Gate Bridge."

Wolfgang von Zeppelin notes that the zeppelin NT Baden-Württemberg, operating in Germany, has already carried more passengers than all the earlier, larger zeppelins did during their period of commercial operation, between 1910 and 1937. The success encouraged him to create a new company, Zeppelin Europe Tours, and he is now raising money to build an airship that can carry 50 passengers on a European sightseeing circuit.

The scientific missions are also increasing. Last summer Eureka took scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts on long flights over the San Juan Islands in Washington state to count and study whales.

Alex Travell, special mission sales manager for Airship Ventures, says the original business plan envisioned five percent of income coming from science missions, but it has turned out to be about 20 percent. "The Jet Propulsion Lab [in Pasadena, California] is interested in measuring the mercury content in the air in the Los Angeles basin," he says. The movement of air masses makes the work difficult, but because the zeppelin is capable of slow, controlled flights, it is uniquely suited to do the sampling. Moreover, some aspects of the study can be economically piggybacked on sightseeing flights.

Stephen Dunagan of the Ames lab manages development of an imaging system used on the airship. On its flights over the coast salt ponds, Eureka carried a high-resolution camera and a hyperspectral scanning imager mounted in a lower section of the gondola; the latter can identify and measure 256 distinct color bands. Dunagan sees a bright future for the airship: "It doesn’t like to go really high"—8,500 feet is the maximum—"but there’s a lot of very interesting stuff that’s happening very low. Most of the chemical exchange with the biosphere and hydrosphere—the various organisms in the oceans and the gas exchange chemistry at the surface of the oceans—all that is happening in the lower troposphere"—the lowest layer of the atmosphere.

Eureka continues to work for the scientists at Ames. It has more flights scheduled over the salt ponds, and the data will be correlated with observations from sea level as well as from satellites, which can detect larger patterns of change as the water is desalinated.

Ames’ Rocco Mancinelli hopes the zeppelin flights will help with a second interest of his. A researcher with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, Mancinelli says: "I’m also interested in Mars. Right now it’s dry, but some time during its past it had water. When it evaporated it formed brine pockets, and what kind of organisms went into these brine pockets?" Mancinelli thinks that the zeppelin flights could detect patterns in the south San Francisco ponds suggesting the kinds of microbial life that might have once lived on the Red Planet.

It’s not something Count von Zeppelin would have considered: that his airships would evolve from serene carriers of passengers and mail to vehicles enlisted in the study of life on Mars.

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