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I thought it would be fun to send a 9 metre balloon to edge of space with a camera attached. I’m not really into space stuff but a couple of Dads (Mike & Jonathan) from my daughters School seem to know every star, so I asked them for some help with this mission.

We got ourselves a gps tracking device and a cheap £80 camera off eBay and applied for CAA permission. Then we had a meeting which included a few beers and waited 6 weeks for our launch date.

The night before the launch our spaceship was not assembled and I suggested that we just wing it at 6am down the local park. I wanted to gaffa tape our iphone and camera to the box and send it on it’s way. Jonathan pointed out that this might not be too easy on a wet dark park and that we should encase the camera within our spaceship. Jonathan didn’t realise that I was thinking outside the box.

Qualifications of our 3 astronauts:

  • David (yours truly): Balloon Man
  • Jonathan: Good at cutting polystyrene and working satellite gadgets on his phone.
  • Mike: Cheif gps tester and sim card provider, balloon sealer and payload calculating genius (also made a cracking suggestion to write my email on both the lid and base incase the capsule exploded on re entry).

Although the balloon has a 9 metre diameter we only needed to inflate it to 2 metres because it expands as it gets higher and the air gets thinner. We needed to make our ship as light as possible so the balloon would ascend faster and travel less distance horizontally. If the capsule was heavy the balloon would need to be bigger which would mean bursting at a lower altitude.

I did at one point consider attaching 3 balloons all inflated to 1 metre so all 3 would go even higher. I soon worked out that not all 3 would burst at exactly the same time and this would result in the 2 remaining balloons losing altitude slowly and drifting a long way.

There were many things that could go wrong with this project. My biggest concern was the gps tracker landing in a location with no reception.

Mike was so enthusiastic he felt compelled to put pen to paper and here are his words:

 Up, up and away in my beautiful balloon…

Dave’s building a space ship.

He wants to send a camera into space attached to a balloon.

He’s looking for people to help if they want…

OK, that sounds good, I thought. I definitely wanted to be in on it from the start. The idea sounded plausible enough. It’s not every day you hear that someone’s prepared to try and do something different. Something that stands a good chance of failure but also stands some remote chance of success. Either a spectacular event or a brave attempt. Either way an adventure.

But what’s the point?

People have done it before

Why bother when there are so many other things that need doing?

All equally valid and potentially plug pulling reasons for not bothering. But yet there is that small voice saying “what if it works” The fun loving spirit that gets a 6 year old out of bed at 05:30 am immediately. Drags both of you out into the middle of a dew covered park at sunrise and, ultimately, sets adrift a precarious assortment of old and new technologies.

The principal of buoyancy has been understood for many millennia. This principal coupled with GPS a 2nd hand Kodak/Go-Pro Style device plus an old i-phone for video backup make up the “Space Ship”. This Vessel and precious cargo will all rise to a high of around 30 km. Passenger Jets fly at around 10 km. “Space” officially starts at 100 km. From 30 km high you can see actual “Space”. At that height both the curvature of the earth and the gradation in our atmosphere is visible. The “thin blue” line that keeps us all safe from instant space death is clearly present.

The “Space Ship” should more accurately be referred to as a “High Altitude Balloon”. Regardless, “Space Balloon” will do for me. Irrespectively the two meter diameter helium balloon will rise and expand until when around ten meters in diameter it will explode. In the hostile environment of “near space” the on board cameras should film the entire event. In the ratified atmosphere this inevitable, tremendous, explosion will clearly be recorded as an audible “pop”.

Dave, Jonathan and I met in due course for a “strategic planning meeting”. Several beers later we decided that there was really nothing to it. Blow up Balloon with helium. Tie to box. Put Gizmos in box. Put a SIM Card in one of the Gizmos. Did I mention the parachute? It’ll be fine.

So with the full technical specification finalised work could at last begin on the development program.

Skip forward to the weekend of the launch. The project team reconvene:

Everything’s still looking good. The critical components are nearly all untainted by testing. Fortunately many even remain pristine in their original packaging. No doubt there would still be plenty of time to thrash out any problems encountered during the critical vehicle assembly and mission planning phases of the project.

Granted this particular phase of the mission had been compressed by a somewhat “late in the project cycle” Civil Aviation Authority imposed ½ hr release window and strict interdiction on wind direction. However with Dave’s assurances I remained convinced it could all be done at dawn, in a field with cold untrained hands in less than an hour.

None the less Jonathan and Dave decided to err on side of caution. Valiantly they brought forward the vehicle assembly phase. Pulling out all the stops they selflessly worked late into the night; fine tuning the dynamics of the space craft while ensuring it’s structural integrity.

With the balance between the Research and Development and real world testing elements maintained the critical weather predictions were again referenced. Reassuringly there remained a slim chance that the wind would not blow the balloon into the flight path of any of the many nearby airports.

The night before the launch we slept sound in the knowledge that we had done everything possible to ensure success. We would be, come dawn, in the lap of the Gods. I opened another bottle of red.

My 6am alarm went off.

The rest is history….


Flight Analysis from Jonathan:

Sunday 13 September 2015

1st video: start time: ‏‎ 06:39 am
duration: 01:09:00 hrs
2nd video: start time: 07:48 am
duration: 00:24:41 hrs

GPS calls duration response
06:39 1 06:40 speed:00.1,-1.29018&z=16
06:46 2 06:47 speed:23.7,-1.28827&z=16
06:47 3
06:48 1 06:49 speed:18.6,-1.28169&z=16
06:50 1
06:53 3 06:54 speed:50.8,-1.27039&z=16
06:59 4
07:01 2
07:03 2
07:15 2
07:41 2
07:57 2
08:50 2
09:12 0 09:13 speed:00.2,-0.62299&z=16
09:16 0 09:16 speed:00.0,-0.62305&z=16
09:19 0 09:19 speed:00.3,-0.62303&z=16
09:36 0 09:37 speed:00.2,-0.62305&z=16
09:37 2
10:03 0 10:03 speed:00.5,-0.62286&z=16

launch time: 1st video start time + 00:06:10 = 06:45 am
time till pop: 2nd video start time + 00:17:51 = 08:05 am = 01:20 hrs
landing time: after 08:50 but before 09:12
flight time: between 2:00 and 2:20 hrs

camera: 127g
GPS thingy: 52g
Ikea bags: 6g

iPhone 5 – 112g

Capsule & cables & parachute: 440g
remains of 1,000g balloon: 50g 🙂

Total – 787g