Last summer a helium balloon lifted a seven-year-old boy’s cargo to the edge of space. A foam covered plastic takeout container, colored bright orange, housed an iPhone, a camera, hand warmers, and a note from Max Geissbühler: Would the finder please return it to him, in exchange for a reward? The purpose was to “film the blackness beyond our Earth,” says Max’s father, Luke Geissbühler, a Brooklyn, N.Y., cinematographer and director.
Father and son spent eight months testing and troubleshooting, then drove to Newburgh, N.Y., where they released the balloon after a dramatic countdown. For nearly two hours, the camera recorded images of a cloud-covered planet set against a blue-black ring of space. Peaking at 19 miles above Earth, the equipment sometimes rocked wildly in thermal winds before the latex balloon stretched to its maximum diameter of 19 feet, popped, and plummeted back to Earth; a parachute slowed the fall. The iPhone had a homing-beacon app, and Max and his father used a GPS to locate their pack, tangled in a tree. The camera’s battery had quit two minutes before impact, but they were delighted with the high-def movie that survived impact.
Max’s mission cost a mere $600, and such cheap excursions into space are nothing new. Meteorologists launch hundreds of balloons daily to take atmospherical measurements that translate into forecasts. Such soundings, as they’re called, hearken back to 1960 and Echo 1, the first communications satellite launched via a Mylar balloon, and nearly 200 years before that, to 1783 and the Montgolfier brothers’ first hot-air balloon fight.
Homemade spacecraft reflect a more significant shift in research as well. According to NASA’s website, its Glenn Academy plans to facilitate balloon-assisted launches that deliver miniature satellites into orbit, reducing barriers for universities, companies, and governmental agencies that want to perform research without prohibitive costs of space flight.
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