Next month, a V-shaped airship bigger than a baseball diamond is due to rise from the West Texas desert to an altitude of 100,000 feet (30.5 kilometers), navigate by remote control, linger above the clouds and drift back to earth.

For the U.S. Air Force, the feat will demonstrate the feasibility of a new kind of semi-autonomous craft that could hover in “near space,” to do reconnaissance and relay battlefield communications.

That vision is ambitious enough. But for JP Aerospace, the California-based company that built the airship for the military, the flight would represent just one more small step toward an even bigger conceptual leap: a system of floating platforms that gossamer spaceships could use as high-altitude way stations.

“The full-size station in our grand vision is 2 miles across,” John Powell, the company’s founder, told “But that’s down the road a bit. We take baby steps.”

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