WHO NEEDS NASA? AMATEUR MISSIONS TO THE EDGE OF SPACE
By Joni Blecher on October 06, 2014
Since October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into orbit, people have been sending up all sorts of things into outer space. Laika, the Soviet space dog, went into orbit a month later on Sputnik 2. Unfortunately, she didn’t survive the trip. Monkeys, chimpanzees, some more dogs and even a few cats all made the journey, with some animals faring better than others.
The first humans traveled into space in 1961, and it didn’t take long before things started to get a little strange. In 1965, astronaut John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich aboard Gemini III. A few years later, when Apollo 12 was headed to the Moon, the backup crew hid pictures of Playboy Playmates in the astronauts’ lunar checklist. On a more sentimental note, astronaut Shannon Walker brought along Amelia Earhart’s watch when she boarded the International Space Station in 2010. The watch, which Earhart wore on two trans-Atlantic flights, still works.
Other items that have traveled into space include Luke Skywalker’s Lightsaber from Star Wars and a Buzz Lightyear action figure that spent more than a year floating around the International Space Station.
If you don’t have an “in” at NASA, the Russian Space Agency or SpaceX, no worries—you can still launch just about anything into the stratosphere for a near-space experience. Everything you need for a “high altitude balloon kit” can be found on the Internet. You’ll need to notify aviation authorities, but for as little as a few hundred bucks, you can join the ranks of hobbyists, budding scientists and elementary school students who’ve sent some pretty weird things flying high:
In 2012, five Harvard students launched a stale hamburger (it was also shellacked) to 98,425 feet. It descended back to Earth and landed high up in a tree 130 miles away from the launch site. The students tried—and failed—to shoot the burger down with a bow and arrow, so they had to wait for a storm to knock it free a few days later.
In Sweden, David Windestål, a radio-control equipment enthusiast, sent a radio-control airplane into the stratosphere. The plane reached about 100,000 feet before the helium balloon popped. After allowing the bundle to free-fall for four minutes, Windestål the plane from the balloon—but it lost one of its antennas. Twenty minutes later, Windestål regained control and used the on-board video camera to help land the plane. It didn’t land right at his feet, but it ended up pretty close.
If you’re looking to give your music video an edge, why not add a near-space scene? That’s what U.K. resident James Troshy had in mind when he launched a toy robot 95,000 feet in 2010. The footage appears in the music video “Edgar” by Lucky Elephant. The robot landed 11 miles from the launch site intact.
When seventh grader Lauren Rojas had to come up with an idea for her Science Fair project, sending Hello Kitty flying wasn’t the initial plan. “Originally, I was going to just send up the silver rocket, but I wanted to have a mascot for my project. My Dad had just gotten back from a business trip and brought me a little Hello Kitty eraser that happened to fit perfectly into the rocket,” said Rojas.
A rocket that looks like a Sanrio design and the Hello Kitty mascot made it 93,625 feet before descending to Earth and landing in a tree. Rojas said, “It took us approximately three hours to find the project in the tree. We launched it in Livermore, and it landed in San Jose, 47.5 miles away.”
In an effort to promote a new flat screen TV, Toshiba hired JP Aerospace to launch and film an armchair. While the apparatus made it to 98,000 feet, the chair fell apart on descent. Fortunately, the camera gear survived as it parachuted back to Earth, landing within 12 miles of the launch site.
In 2013, Bemidji State University in Minnesota prepared a weather balloon launch and invited middle school students to send up something too. While the college kids sent up boxes with equipment to measure radiation and acceleration, the middle school kids sent up paintballs (and some junk food) in a container. The balloon made it 98,000 feet, but the paintballs never popped—so no chance of getting a glimpse at what near-space splatter art might look like.
Best friends Jon Chippindall and Ian Cunningham launched a homemade probe with two LEGO astronaut minifigures affixed to it. The probe made it 90,000 feet before heading back to Earth.
Two Canadian teenagers sent a patriotic minifig to about 80,000 feet in 2012.
And minifigs have flown on the space shuttle and visited the International Space Station as part of official missions. Right now, three custom-made aluminum minifigs are on their way to Jupiter aboard NASA’s Juno spacecraft.
In 2012, an eighth-grade science class at Indian Valley High broke into teams to send up crickets, grapes and water balloons. Unlike the other items sent to the stratosphere, this voyage employed six balloons instead of just one giant helium balloon and only made it 62,720 feet. The grapes didn’t turn into raisins, and the water balloons didn’t pop. But for some mysterious reason, all the crickets died—as did all the crickets in the control group back on Earth.
Before sending things to near space became all the rage, someone used a helium balloon to send up an iPhone. It survived, and the resulting video became a bit of inspiration for lifelong friends Rich Toma and Danny Burns. “We thought that was a bizarre thing to send into space. We were drinking ‘Natty Light’ when we watched that video,” said Burns. They looked at the beer in hand and thought, “It’s a small, portable, light payload… a perfect little space object.”
In 2011, the two turned to the Internet and learned everything they needed to fling beer toward space, including a tip that they should wrap everything in hand warmers. They bought a Styrofoam cooler and packed it with a Web-based GPS unit, a handy cam, encapsulated foam and an unopened can of Natural Light beer. Burns and Toma also affixed an empty can to the side of the cooler to get footage of the beer’s voyage. They never even thought of sending up a craft beer. “Nobody pays attention to Natty,” said Toma. “It deserves its day in the sun.” It got it after soaring about 90,000 feet above Earth.
You can sip a bacon martini and spritz on some bacon cologne, so why not dine on high-altitude bacon? In early 2013, a few gentlemen in the U.K. sent a popular barbeque recipe known as the bacon explosion into the heavens on board their homemade craft, Pigasus I. After ascending to a height of nearly 100,000 feet, the precious cargo returned to Earth via parachute, where it was retrieved, cooked and eaten.
Joni Blecher is a freelance writer who has spent her career covering tech and a myriad of lifestyle topics. When she’s not writing, you can find her exploring the food scene in Portland, OR.