Travel Tech

Travel, adventure and exploration have always been defining elements of the human psyche. It’s what makes us human.

The celebrated psychologist, Abraham H. Maslow, called it “self-actualisation”, but the concept, if not the name, had been known for much longer. Once mankind had satisfied the lesser, more fundamental requirements such as food, shelter and community he looked beyond the horizon and wondered, “What if …?”

The first furtive wanderings of the newly upright hominids were probably as much about the search for food and fresh hunting grounds as any curiosity-driven quest for new territory. But these early forays doubtlessly sowed the seeds for future exploration because, as is now known, homo sapiens populated the entire planet from a single genetic source.

For many thousands of years the preferred, or only known form of transport was by foot. Vast treks over many generations spawned the incredible anthropological diversity that makes our planet unique in the universe. We eventually tamed horses, built carts, canoes and ultimately vast ocean-going vessels that transported armies and minor civilisations around our world to populate, trade and conquer.

Perhaps the pinnacle of ancient maritime architecture were the enormous Chinese Ming-dynasty treasure ships of the 15th Century. These wooden leviathans dwarfed the petty craft sailed by the Europeans both before and after with the largest of these vessels measuring some 150 metres, over five times more than Cook’s Endeavour. It is now known that vast fleets of these huge ships, and their supporting entourage, ranged throughout the Indian Ocean, stamping China’s colonial authority on lands as far away as South Africa, perhaps even further.

It wasn’t until the coming of the Industrial Revolution and the widespread use of iron and steel before this mark could be surpassed. In 1858, after enormous technical and financial difficulties, the SS Great Eastern was launched. At 211 metres, she was the largest ship ever built and was designed to carry as many as 4000 passengers on transatlantic voyages. Her size was her undoing and after a series of accidents and mishaps, many believed her to be jinxed and she saw out her days as a stalwart cable-laying ship. When she was broken up in 1890, the skeletons of a riveter and his child apprentice were discovered sealed inside the bulkhead.

The next quantum leap was in the early 20th century when the race to dominate the transatlantic route reignited with a spate of luxury megaliners typified by such majestic vessels as the Cunard Line’s Lusitania and Mauritania and the White Star’s trio Titantic, Olympic and Britannic. Again, the ambitious and unprecedented size of these ships could have contributed to their undoing. Only two of these 250+ metre vessels survived disasters to fulfil complete terms of service.

Today, computer-aided design and space-age metallurgy have allowed the cruise ship industry to revive and the size of the new wave of megaliners is only limited by the infrastructure of ports and the logistics of managing several thousand passengers at once. Even Sydney Harbour, renown for accommodating the largest ships, had to berth the world’s (currently) longest liner, QM2, in the naval yard where visiting nuclear aircraft carriers and battleships normally reside. The QM2 is 345 metres long and carries just over 2600 passengers and 1250 crew. Compared to the 4000 souls that could be crammed into the SS Great Eastern, the QM2’s passengers are transported in the lap of luxury with a mind-boggling array of dining, leisure and entertainment spaces that includes casinos, pubs, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and a spa resort.

Propelling vessels of this size requires the absolute state-of-the-art in marine engineering. From sails and oars, through coal and oil fired boilers to advanced diesel and gas turbines, these huge ships require enourous oput puts of power to reach their cruising speeds of around 20 knots. The QM2 uses four 16-cylinder Wärtsilä 16V46CR EnviroEngine marine diesel engines generating a combined 67200kW at 514rpm. To supplement this, two General Electric LM2500+ gas turbines provide a further 50000kW. But to compound the wonder of this mechanical marvel, the dual gas and diesel powerplants do not drive the propellers directly, but instead drive generators which in turn supply electricity to four podded propulsion units located outside the ship’s superstructure. Are you following? The added beauty of this method is that the pods can rotate through a full 360 degrees allowing great manoeuvrability and eliminating the need for a rudder.

Even as you read this, plans are under way to eclipse these vessels. Royal Caribbean, whose Freedom class liners are fractionally shorter than Cunard’s QM2, will change the shape of cruising forever with their Genesis class liners. Already under construction in Finland and due for launch in 2009, these truly revolutionary ships will measure 360 metres and carry over 5000 passengers.

There are folks alive today who were born before the Wright brothers’ first powered flight on December 17, 1903. Such has been the astounding technological development of powered flight and aircraft that inside that same lifetime, man has flown to the moon and now transverses every continent in the company of hundreds of others, enjoying movies and meals in pressurised comfort.

But for at least thirty years after that historic 12 second event at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, aeronautical travel remained a risky affair with machinery advancing little from the early string and canvas contraptions. It wasn’t until the 1930s, when all-metal aircraft construction became vogue that airlines could confidently offer scheduled services in commercially viable manner. Although the German firm Junkers, made the early breakthrough with the huge G.38, it was the iconic Douglas DC-3 that truly revolutionised commercial air transport after its debut in 1935. Over 10,000 of the incredibly rugged and reliable DC-3s were built and they regularly served for many decades in airline service. It is possible even today; over 70 years after the first ones flew, to ride in a 30-seat DC-3 with any of the specialist charter operators around the world.

But even with the introduction of this new wave of commercial planes, transatlantic crossings by fixed wing aircraft were invariably stunts by intrepid aviators looking to set new records. Regular commercial flights across the Atlantic were not to take place until well after the Second World War. But a select few passengers were able to travel from Europe to America in the magnificent giant airships operated by Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei (Shipping Company).

The age of the massive Zeppelins is often looked upon by historians as the golden age and the true watershed in intercontinental travel. Measuring 245 metres and with an internal volume of 200,000 cubic metres, the largest zeppelins were as long as the largest ocean liners and more than four times that of a modern 747. Travelling at a modest 130 km/h top speed, the zeppelins could nevertheless complete a transatlantic crossing in just two days with her

Everyone remembers the ill-fated Hindenberg (LZ-130) that brought the golden age to such an ignominious end, but her older sister, the Graf Zeppelin (LZ-127) is the most famous airship of all time. Upon her forced retirement in June 1937, she had made 143 transatlantic crossings in her nine year career with a perfect passenger safety record.

Powered by five 550hp Maybach engines, the ingenious Germans had rigged them to run on Blau gas, an artificial substance very similar to propane or LPG. Why? Because it was non-explosive and had roughly the same density as air, thus it did not alter the buoyancy of the airship when burned as the tanks became depleted.

Her designer, the famous Dr Hugo Eckener, guided her around the world in 1929 along with sixty celebrity passengers that included the Australian explorer, Sir Hubert Wilkins, then in the employ of Randolph Hearst. The 21-day journey covered 31,400 kilometres and included the first ever non-stop crossing of the Pacific Ocean by an aircraft.

Dr Eckener was well aware of the dangers of hydrogen but could not obtain the helium he wanted in useful quantities because the USA, the only supplier of the inert, non-flammable gas, had embargoed it fearing Germany would use it for hostile purposes. Eckener was never comfortable with his country’s plunge into Nazism and Luftwaffe Chief, Hermann Goering, rejoiced in cancelling all zeppelin construction and ordered all the surviving craft scrapped in 1940.

Today, a new semi-rigid inflatable, the Zeppelin NT, operates joyflights from the spiritual home of the great airships, Friedrichshafen, in the far south of Germany.

Following the Second World War, the great strides in heavier-than-air technology was diverted into civilian aircraft construction. The fearsome long-range bombers like the Boeing B-17 and B-29, responsible for such terrible destruction, served as the basis for the new wave of passenger aircraft like the Lockheed Constellation which was operated by Qantas on its Kangaroo route to London from 1947 until the introduction of its first jet aircraft, the Boeing 707, in 1959.

The “Jet Age” delivered the next great transformation of travel and soon the big (and bigger) jets were carrying passengers and freight from Sydney to London in about a day. Australia’s national airline followed the irresistible worldwide trend and introduced the revolutionary 747 Jumbo Jet in 1971. The range and carrying capacity of this marvellous aircraft changed the world forever. More people were flying further for less money everyday. In 1936, a return ticket on the Hindenburg cost US$720, well over US$10,000 today. A bargain return ticket of A$2000 to London from Sydney today, would cost $140 in 1936 – about three months wages.

Just as the Graf Zeppelin was the pinnacle of aspirational travel in the early 20th Century, the space race of the ‘50s and ‘60s has finally translated to tourism. Arthur C Clarke’s vision of 2001, when commuter flights to the moon took place aboard PanAm spaceships and Hilton had a hotel in orbit, look like finally being realised.

Currently it may take the equivalent of the GDP of a small African republic to get a ticket to the International Space Station, but all that is set to change. Renown physicist, the wheelchair bound Dr Stephen Hawking took a US$3500 space training flight aboard a specially modified 727 where clients experience about 30 seconds of weightlessness as the plane makes a steep dive. But that is just a teaser. Flamboyant entrepreneur and Virgin boss, Sir Richard Branson’s plans regular space flights for mere punters with his ground-breaking “spaceline”, Virgin Galactic.

Announced in 2004, Branson’s spaceline plans to begin commercial operations in 2009 and expects to carry about 500 passengers a year into space. His proposed fleet of five spaceships will have a crew of two and just six passengers flying to an altitude of about 110 kilometres, the very edge of space, where they will experience almost ten minutes of weightlessness.

Unlike NASA’s Space Shuttle which uses huge and dangerous solid fuel rocket boosters, Virgin Galatic’s SpaceShipTwo will launch from a mother ship called WhiteKnightTwo, and use a single hybrid rocket motor to reach its peak altitude. Because the craft will only travel at around 4000 km/h, it will not require heatshields for re-entry.

The public accessibility of space travel will not stop there. Branson’s plans include a space hotel, larger vehicles and … who knows what else? The Moon?

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Australian is first Virgin Galactic Customer.

The first ticket into space was bought by a Brisbane woman, Glenys Ambe. It cost $US200,000 and was sold by World Travel Professionals, which was accredited last year as an official Virgin Galactic Space Agent.

Ms Ambe will have to spend three days in training before her flight leaves from a new American spaceport in New Mexico.

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