The historic, cross-country journey of the first plane to fly across the US without fuel, the Solar Impulse HB-SIA, ended safely at JFK airport on the night of Saturday, July 6. One would think that in a news cycle dominated by bad to disastrous news about violent, corrupt and ridiculous people, such an uplifting story would elicit near-universal acclaim, but some journalists wasted no time heaping ridicule upon the whole enterprise. The plane, they said, looked more like a toy than an aircraft — except that it seemed far less sturdy than the average toy. (Actually, they had a point there: some of the materials with which the plane is constructed are literally lighter than paper!) And how could anybody take seriously a plane whose cruising speed is 30 miles-per-hour and whose top speed is a mere 45 miles-per-hour? (The entire trip took almost 106 hours.) Yet the Swiss pilot of the craft — Andre Borschberg – even after a tear appeared in the fabric of the left wing, brought it down safely on the last leg of its continent-wide, two-month run. By fulfilling their goal of piloting across the U.S. the first solar-powered plane capable of flying by day and night, Borschberg and the co-founder of the Solar Impulse project, Bertrand Piccard, achieved a major technological triumph and, I would claim, a moral victory as well.
For me, the Solar Impulse is a thing of beauty. Its huge wingspan, as wide as a Boeing 747, makes it look like a majestic, prehistoric bird. Its batteries store all the energy its 12,000 solar cells have accumulated during the daylight hours to allow it to fly after sundown. So when it descends onto the runway of an airport at night, its lights glowing across its entire length (as in this YouTube video), it’s a sight to behold.
Piccard has claimed that solar powered planes could be commercially available “within five years,” while Borschberg emphasizes its non-aviation uses. (“All the partners who are involved with this project developed technologies not for the aviation world, but for their own customers,” Borschberg said.) I happen to side with M. Piccard on this, not M. Borschberg. Yes, this plane is much too slow and can carry too few people — exactly one — to be useful for the purposes of commercial aviation. (And HB-SIA is even now about to be retired in favor of a more ambitious prototype scheduled to make a round-the-world flight in 2015.) But the Wright Brothers’ rickety craft didn’t fly very fast or carry passengers, either. Yet it worked, and that unpromising beginning led to a planet entirely connected by air travel. Without a foundation there can be nothing to build on, and I want to believe that the Solar Impulse will one day be remembered as the foundation for all future solar-powered flights.
If that’s true, then this historic milestone hasn’t occurred a moment too soon. According to the EPA, 13 percent of all greenhouse gases come from transport-related sources: cars, trucks, etc. Jet fuel obviously represents a huge part of that 13 percent, so it’s clear that part of the challenge of saving the planet involves eliminating this source of pollution. It’s wildly unlikely, however, that people would be willing to forego flying and go back to international travel by boat. The Solar Impulse suggests the tantalizing possibility that pollution-free air travel may, in the not-too-distant future, become a reality.
Just as importantly, the flight of the Solar Impulse is a lovely metaphor for the rise of solar power itself. For scientific innovations to be politically viable, they must come to represent the Idea of the Future to people. The solar panel is a purely functional object. It’s not unattractive, but not particularly inspiring, either. But the Solar Impulse, as the automobile once was, is today’s Idea of the Future, the embodiment of the concept that the world can rise above the dangerous, polluted present if only everyone would embrace renewables. The aircraft’s success provides some hope in a world that can sometimes seem nearly hopeless.