MSNBC reports a California company with an alternate launch site in Texas, JP Aerospace, is on their third test article of a blimp system specifically designed to fly to space.
Blimps. To Space. At payload costs around a dollar a ton-mile to LEO. This compares rather favorably to NASA's $155,555 per ton-mile with the Shuttle.
Their concept, first unveiled at the Space Access '04 conference in Phoenix last month (with a blog report here, include the Ascender, a ground-to-near-space blimp, which docks to a helium-inflated two-mile-long station at the edge of space, over 20 miles up. Another ship, also a blimp but specifically designed to reach orbit, takes the payload from there to LEO, using well-proven electric propulsion (AKA 'ion drive').
That trip to LEO would take up to nine days, but that's a good thing; for, what goes up fast, must come down fast, and speed is energy which must be bled off by either massive amounts of expensive and explosive rocket fuel, or through ablative heat transfer which has its own problems (as we have seen before).
JP Aerospace, self-billed as a volunteer organization, has operated since 2002 PongSats, micropayloads the size of a ping-pong ball, for balloon or rocket-launch. Over 1,500 PongSats have flown to date, which demonstrates a track record in near-space few of the X-Prize contenders can approach.
This simple, cheap, large scale technology could give our economy a big boost. Imagine what we could do with a constellation of Ascenders, up in the stratosphere, running economy-enhancing missions:
1 - blanket the country with true broadband-grade wireless coverage (we'd probably only need a baker's dozen of stations to do this, BTW), and
2 - while they're up there, generate a little extra ozone, and sequestrate excess carbon dioxide (capture with LiOH, just like space vessels do, then release the O2 and turn the excess carbon into carbon-carbon fiber) to offset pollution caused by our industries and transportation systems, so we don't have to curtail our economy, and
3 - do a little cloud seeding for cirrus, which increases the albedo of the Earth, reducing the light coming in and cooling things down, or drop a little soot in the air to decrease the albedo (and thereby heat things up, if we are headed to another Little Ice Age like we had in the 18th Century).
Oh, yes, the Air Force is interested.
Further discussion on Slashdot.