Germany, High School and a Styrofoam Box — what I learned by going to the edge of space
How a high school kid sent a camera to the edge of space and back. Sixty-six years after the first photos of space were taken by a German rocket.
The Story of a Stolen V-2 Rocket
This story does not start in the place you thought it would. It starts in Germany. In fact, this story starts with a stolen Nazi rocket.
After WWII, when the Nazis surrendered, the U.S. took hold of military weapons. Under the guidance of man named, Von Braun, these rockets were shipped to the U.S. to be used for scientific purposes. One of these rockets was the V-2. It was a military weapon that Hitler had thought would win the war. However, the Nazis ran out of time and the V-2 never was able to inflict intercontinental damage. When this rocket was shipped to the U.S., it went to New Mexico for scientific purposes.
When the rocket got to New Mexico, an engineering named Clyde Holliday had the audacious idea to strap a camera to the V-2. This camera would then take photos every minute. With an audacious goal, this team of New Mexico researchers sent the rocket camera up into “near space” in October of 1946.
This photo, above, was taken by the V-2. When pushed in National Geographic Magazine a year later, it was described as “what the earth would look like if aliens were invading from space.”
This is part of the story that is never told. Because the U.S. was able to confiscate these rockets from the Nazis, the U.S. was able to develop their technology for the Saturn V rocket. It also cemented the U.S. as a leader in the space race. Serendipitously, Von Braun — who incited the rockets to be sent to the U.S. — became one of the founding members of NASA. Eleven years later, NASA would launch the first satellite called Spudnik. Twelve years later, the U.S. would man one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind. All thanks to the confiscated Nazi V-2 rocket.
The Story of the Space Balloon
By the time the 21st century came to fruition, the technology for reaching near-space became much cheaper. Weather balloons became the medium of choice. Filled with helium, these balloons can rise to over 123,000 feet. Before expanding to the size of a motor vehicle in low pressure and freeze, they pop. If you have a parachute, you can strap a payload to this balloon. If you have a tracking system with a GPS, you can track the position of this payload. Then and only then, can you strap a camera to the payload. If you program the camera, you can then get it to take photos every 30 seconds. By doing those steps, you can get a beautiful picture like this:
In present day, you can buy a GPS for around $100. You can by a HAM radio or transmitter for $100. A weather balloon is about $60. A styrofoam box is $5. A cheap digital camera is $50. And finally, a tank of helium is around $100. For a relatively low price compared to the $1,000,000+ V-2 launch, you can get photos that look infinitely more beautiful.
When I was a measely eight grader in Connecticut, I saw people all around the world launching these balloons. I saw videos from Luke Geissbuhler (below) launching balloons to the edge of space.
I thought to myself, if these guys can be successful, why not me?
The people doing these incredible things were humans just like me. If they could do it, who said I couldn’t achieve it? With a little technical know-how and some spare time, this was easy.
Over the course of around six months, I developed this plan for “Project Stratohab.” The mission was very similar to many other ballon launches. My goal and major difference? Find a way to do this cheap enough that anyone my age (or younger) could achieve it.
How did I do it? Research. Testing. FAA approval. Launch.
There were a few things I had to think about: burst volume, ascent rates, descent rates, terminal velocity, mass, peek altitude, radar reflection, camera programming, strong knots, synthetic cables to with stand temperatures, lithium batteries to keep the radios alive, HAM radio communication, GPS tracking, parachute deployment, and recovery. All of these things had to go right in order to have a successful launch.
Because I was not going to let this fail. Every leak in the boat was accounted for. Every failure point was carefully considered. Every redundancy that could exist… existed.
There were no cables on this ballon. I had to let it go. This balloon was at the mercy of the wind. Once I let it go, it could float anywhere it wanted to. It would travel between 50 to 150 miles. It would reach almost zero pressure at the edge of space. It would encounter terminal velocity (200 mph) without any air to slow it down. It would have to withstand subzero temperatures. It would have to slow down enough with a parachute that it would land without crashing. All of these things had to go right.
Through aprs.fi, I was able to track the balloon’s coordinates. Once it was on the ground, it was up to me to find it over its two hour journey from Connecticut to Massachusetts. Every 30 seconds it took a photo. Every 5 minutes it outputted its location, altitude and speed using a ham radio. All the way up to 65,000 feet, this balloon was tracked.
At the end of its journey, it ended up 90 miles from its launch site. After a few minutes we found it in a tree and got it down. Success.
What I learned
Having access to space is empowering. Having access to space, at 17, is even more empowering. It is empowering because you have the opportunity to independently achieve what the U.S. struggled to do before 1946.
We live in an age where a high school student can have as much technological “know how” than the most powerful 20th century nation.
- Overnight successes never happen. They are a series of sequential events.
- Whether you think you can achieve something, or you think you cannot achieve something… you are the one who decides it.
- Life is your ride, not society’s. If you want to get to new heights (literally), you need to be the one to do it.
- Be obsessed. Find every hole in the boat. Implement every redundancy.
- Research. Test. Repeat.
- Learn as much as possible from other people. During the project, I talked to around 20 people who launched similar balloons. Their help was invaluable.
Here’s the full video of the launch:
If you are over 30 years old, read this:
As a society, we need to recognize the capability of young people — whether its in the classroom, on the field, or at home. Too many adults criticize young people for being immature. Even though many are, there are a select group of kids who are infinitely more wise than adults. If you think that this statement is crass or illogical, rethink your position.
My generation is truly the first generation that grew up with access to all of mankind’s knowledge on the internet. Our generation sees that world that our grandparents and parents left for us, and we are not satisfied with the status quo. Realizing that you have the same capabilities as everyone else, even adults, is the first step to doing something great.
You might think I am young for giving advice on Medium, but there is no such thing as young. Everyone, given the right experiences, has knowledge and intuition that others do not have. Adults do not think that they can learn anything from kids. But the fact is, kids sometimes have greater insights than most adults.
You can either take my advice or you can ignore me. But I bet you haven’t put anything into space. Realize that young people have knowledge that you don’t.
This article is part of my continuing efforts to share my past projects on Medium. I hope you enjoyed this one. If you want me to write more articles about my past projects, please hit the Recommend button below.