Space travel today is largely ruled by government agencies and billionaire tech magnates. But for the average person, it’s much easier to reach Earth’s outer limits than you might think.
All you need is a big weather balloon, some helium, a camera, and a dose of good timing.
High-altitude “ballooning” allows hobbyists, photographers, and students alike to view our planet from as high as 100,000 feet. These balloons can capture the curvature of the Earth and fields of endless clouds from greater heights than drones, and with richer detail than a satellite.
John Flaig, a photographer in Wisconsin, calls this the “democratization” of technology.
“Right now, it’s the closest a regular person can come to touching space,” said Flaig, who has launched around 20 high altitude balloons since 2012. “There’s no other accessible mechanism that will take you into that environment.”
Meteorologists use latex weather balloons every day to gather data on the upper atmosphere from almost 900 locations worldwide, including 92 spots in the U.S. and its territories. Such balloons are launched twice daily, with the information they collect going into computer models to help forecast the weather.
But the DIY space race didn’t really take off until around 2009, after two MIT students built their own makeshift rig for just $150.
Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh filled a latex weather balloon with helium and attached a styrofoam beer cooler, which held a cheap Canon compact camera and a few instant hand warmers. A prepaid, GPS-equipped cell phone in the cooler helped track the “payload” after the balloon burst at 93,000 feet and as the box plummeted down on a parachute.
Their popular YouTube video and widespread news coverage sparked excitement in garages and classrooms in the U.S. and worldwide. The Global Space Balloon Challenge, for instance, now includes over 450 teams in nearly 60 countries.
Marshall Dias said he was instantly hooked after seeing the MIT experiment. An Iowa banker, Dias said the balloons appealed to his inner “computer nerd and tech nerd.”
However, he wanted to take a slightly more sophisticated approach. As a licensed pilot, he knew that launching balloons into the sky could create some serious air traffic risks. He also wanted to be sure the payload wouldn’t crash onto an airport runway or a busy road. Plus, if you can’t find the package, you could lose all your expensive camera gear.
“I learned very quickly if I was going to do this at a more controlled level, I’d have to get a ham [amateur] radio license to put radio transmitters in the balloon,” he said, rather than “using some burner cell phone” like the MIT students.
License in hand, Dias next helped form the Iowa High Altitude Balloon Project with about five other hobbyists. The team studies wind and weather forecasts to calculate the best times and locations for a launch and to project where the payload will land. Once the balloon pops, a couple of members will hop in a car and drive anywhere from 30 to 200 miles to chase the package.
The team has launched 16 balloons since 2010, with each cooler carrying cameras, transmitters, and a little something extra. On the first flight, that extra was a Morse Code beacon that sent signals as far away as Russia. They’re now considering adding 360-degree cameras into their coolers, bringing the latest in camera technology tens of thousands of feet in the air.
Kindergartners have also added grapes and marshmallows to see how the pressure differences at high altitudes can transform their snacks.
“Outside of our own geeky, technology-driven desires, we’ve had just as much fun engaging young people, the next generation of scientists,” Dias said.
So far, Dias and his friends have only had one near-mishap: A payload with two GoPros sat in an Iowa cornfield one winter, until a farmer found the foam box three months later.
Flaig said he’s only had one big loss so far: a payload containing thousands of dollars’ worth of cameras. His costs are also notably higher than the $150 MIT experiment. The photographer said he spends about $500 to $600 per launch just on the latex balloon and helium.
Still, high-altitude ballooning represents a big professional advantage for Flaig. Photo-snapping drones and airplanes can only fly so high, and satellites and rockets aren’t exactly easy to procure.
“The altitude that these balloons go, between 90,000 and as high as 130,000 feet, is an area that’s not really covered by other mechanisms,” he said. “This is an area that’s totally unexplored in the atmosphere, in terms of aerial photography.”
With the balloons, Flaig has captured unparalleled vistas of Arizona’s orange-red Painted Desert and the Sangre de Cristo mountains in Colorado and New Mexico. He’s photographed a rainbow Pride flag from near-space on behalf of the progressive nonprofit Planting Peace. On the other end of the political spectrum, a gun holster manufacturer recently approached him for a high-flying gig.
“It gives you a view of the world that is essentially completely unexplored, because there is no platform from which to see it — unless you’re on a rocket, but then you’re just passing through,” Flaig said.
“It’s a unique perspective.”
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