Lighter than Air: Exploring the Landscape of Helium
5596 Escaped helium-filled party balloon sinking back to earth next to empty blimp hangar at Tustin, California. CLUI photo
Helium, a light, noble element, strives upward, continuously. While it is abundant in the universe, it is rare in the atmosphere, as it is always escaping into space. Its name comes from helios, the sun, where its existence was first detected, and to which it seems perpetually drawn. On the earth it is mostly bound underground, a product of radioactive decay.
 
A century ago, gas fields with high concentrations of helium were discovered in the middle of the country, and the government began to hoard it. Its propensity for lift enabled a federal monopoly on blimps used to patrol and protect our ships and shores. By the 1990s, blimps were old news, and helium had found new uses in the high tech world. Over the past decade the stores of the Federal Helium Reserve have been meted out to international industrial gas companies, and in coming years, the government is supposed to get out of the helium production business altogether.
 
Exploring the landscape of helium makes for a curious and revealing journey through the past century of American technology, especially the visions of lighter-than-air flight, which seem both futuristic and historic at the same time.
 

 
Currently on display:
Lighter than Air: the Rise (and Fall) of American Helium