Google founder Sergey Brin is “secretly” building a massive airship in Hangar 2 at the NASA Ames Research Center.
Bloomberg reports that Brin’s fascination with airships began when he visited Ames and saw old photos of the giant USS Macon being built by the US Navy in the 1930s.
Google unit Planetary Ventures commissioned the hangars in 2015, and according to Bloomberg, a metal frame is already filling most of the enormous building.
Leading the project is Alan Weston, a British-educated aeronautics expert born to Australian parents.
Weston is keeping quiet about the project right now, but in 2013 he spoke of plans for an airship as a fuel-efficient way to carry cargo loads up to 500 tonnes.
While various attempts to modernise the form of transport, unfortunately best known in terms of the Hindenburg disaster, have met with varying success, Weston has a unique track record as someone not afraid to take a risk.
As in, the ultimate risk, of being one of the first people to bungee jump without having tested the equipment or technique.
In the 1970s, while he was at Oxford University, Weston was part of a group known as the Dangerous Sports Club. Their specialty was high risk and surreal sporting activities, such as skiing a grand piano down the Swiss Alps and hang-gliding from active volcanoes. A sort of forerunner to Jackass.
One night, they hit on an idea when US member Geoff Tabin told them he was visiting New Guinea. A discussion started about vine-jumping, which was actually a coming of age ritual in Vanuatu.
But the discussion turned to how the group could “urbanise” it.
One of the group’s members, Simon Keeling, had a brother in the RAF. Tabin said the brother arranged for the group to “permanently borrow” one of the elastic cords, made by “Bungee Corporation”, used to catch jets as they land on aircraft carriers.
And after an all-night party at Oxford, Keeling, Weston, Tim Hunt (the brother of F1 champion James) and founding member David Kirke performed the first recorded bungee-jump off the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol in the UK, on April 1, 1979, and were promptly arrested.
That was probably Weston’s fault, as he’d told his sisters about the jump and they both independently told the police, fearing their brother was about to kill himself.
In 2014, footage of the jump was uncovered in a store of cans of 16mm film rushes:
At the time, Kirke told the BBC that Weston was third to jump. One YouTube commenter claims his friend Crispin Balfour pushed Weston off.
Four members were also arrested when the group performed the stunt from the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. Weston escaped police by sailing to Fort Point, changing clothes and running off.
It wasn’t Weston’s first escape from the law, according to Kirke, who told the UK Daily Telegraph in 2004:
“He once flew around the Houses of Parliament in a microlight, wearing a gorilla outfit, playing a saxophone and chased by a police helicopter and two civilian helicopters.
“We got him away to Epping Forest, where we bundled him into a car and put him on the first plane back to America.”
The sport hit mainstream soon after members were asked to jump from the Royal Gorge Suspension bridge in Colorado for That’s Incredible!. Tabin, as the inaugural American, got to jump in a white tuxedo, and won a spot in the popular show’s opening credits for a year afterward.
Here’s Weston in footage from that episode:
Weston clearly has a taste for pushing boundaries. He and Kirke once led a sailing expedition for five days in Force 9 gales to a rock 500km off the coast of Scotland, just to spend the night “drinking champagne and dancing to the Beach Boys”.
Tabin is now an opthamologist. Kirke even now continues his exploits for the DSC. He hurled himself from a trebuchet on his 55th birthday and was last reported to be working on building a working pegasus.
Weston continued his daredevil exploits in aerospace engineering, and once broke his ankle trying to hang-glide down Mt Kilimanjaro, before eventually joining the US Air Force.
In 1989, he was an engineer on the Reagan government’s iconic “Star Wars” missile defense system and oversaw one of its first tests.
He’s been with NASA since 2006, at one time working on a moon lander.
And now he’s building an airship for Sergey Brin.
This, kids, is why you should stay in school.