2766: Helium Reserve
Title text: The government has been trying to sell off the Federal Helium Reserve for a few years now, but the sale has been on hold while they try to figure out how to explain this situation to buyers.
The Strategic National Helium Reserve is a reserve of helium in the United States, which holds more than 1 billion cubic meters of helium. This reserve was established by the US Government because helium has a number of critical scientific and industrial applications, and it was considered important to ensure that those needs could always be supplied.
In addition to the scientific uses, helium is also used and sold for more frivolous applications. One of the most well-known is to fill party balloons. Since helium is much lighter than air, balloons filled with it will float. Additionally, because sound propagates differently through helium than through air, inhaling some of the gas will cause a person's voice to sound much higher. The novelty of this phenomenon has long resulted in people inhaling helium from balloons in order to hear their voices change.
Apparently, in this comic, Cueball was hired to manage the Reserve, and apparently lost or used all of the helium. The fact that he can't answer the question "out loud" implies that he inhaled all of the helium to make his voice change, meaning that even answering the question would reveal what he'd been doing.
The notion of one person inhaling the entire helium reserve is, of course, a ludicrous exaggeration (not to mention the fact that inhaling helium deprives a person of oxygen, and inhaling that much would put them at serious risk). The joke, though, is that Cueball was having so much fun inhaling the helium, he simply couldn't stop until he'd used it all up.
It is worth noting that, due to rising prices, most helium now sold for balloons is mixed with air. This lowers cost and helium use, but it makes balloons less buoyant, and dramatically reduces the impact of the gas on your voice. This may be significant to the comic because it means the average person is unable to change their voice with helium, so when Cueball is given access to a vast supply of it, he can no longer help himself.
Another realistic but admittedly less funny explanation is that Cueball didn't use up all the helium frivolously: helium is lighter than air, and once released into the atmosphere, it escapes into space and can never be recovered. A major leak in the Reserve would simply mean that all the helium is lost, and if it happened under Cueball's watch, he'd have to be held responsible -- and it is hard to find materials helium doesn't leak through at an astonishing rate. Firms that try to earn money by transporting heavy cargo using dirigibles (the successful transportation of an airplane wing, a wind turbine or any other large item where the roads are too narrow might be worth considerable amounts of money to those with the means to do so) often fail due to the costs associated with helium leakage.
The title text addresses the real-world privatization of the Reserve, first selling off the helium itself and then the sale of the storage facility. This has been a drawn out process because of political disagreements, however the title text implies the simpler explanation that one guard (or perhaps the government in general) has inhaled all the helium so there is nothing left to sell off.
- [An officer wearing a peaked cap is talking to Cueball. There is a "National Strategic Helium Reserve" building in the background.]
- Officer: You were in charge of guarding the national helium reserve. So where did it go?!
- [Caption below the panel:]
- Unfortunately, there's no good way for me to answer this question out loud.
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