Iowans touch the sky

Hobbyists get close look at Earth’s atmosphere through near-space ballooning

Published: February 3 2013 | 4:00 pm - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 10:56 am in

For most, the quirky hobby starts with an Internet-video-sparked interest and a lifelong yearning to be closer to the stars. For others, it starts as science experiment that allows a parent to spend more time with his or her child.

Regardless of the reason, Iowans of all ages and interests are sending Styrofoam beer coolers — packed with cameras, science experiments and weather measurement material — 90,000 feet above sea level as part of a hobby called near-space ballooning.

In return, they’re producing stunning photographs and videos of Earth, renewing an interest in science in the minds of children and fulfilling their own interest in getting a closer look at space.

How they’re used

Marshall Dias, a 33-year-old Cedar Rapids native who graduated from Washington High School, said he became interested in near-space ballooning as a hobby in 2009 after seeing a news story about two students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who sent a camera into near-space to take photographs of Earth.

“I saw that story and it captivated that youth in me. Back when I was a kid and I would look up at the stars and I was like, ‘Wow, I wish I could go’ and when I saw photos from that altitude I was like, ‘Man, I gotta try it,’” Dias said. “I’m not going to get to space in my lifetime, so it was the closest thing to doing it.”

Since then, Dias has formed an organization, the Iowa High Altitude Balloon project, to help kids get more interested in technology. After talking to students about near-space ballooning, the students put objects, such as grapes or marshmallows, in film canisters and formed a hypothesis on what will happen to them after being exposed to near-space. Students reopen the canisters after the flight and examine their results.

Milwaukee resident John Flaig, who launched his first space balloon out of Calmar last year, uses near-space balloons to capture photographs and videos of Earth. Flaig, who has completed two launches so far, said he likes to launch his balloons at particular times or from interesting landmarks in order to capture unique images.

The 38-year-old computer programmer also blogs extensively about the hobby, and posts his photos to his website.

“In this day and age, there’s not much that hasn’t been photographed, but you can do something like this and get photographs from angles and landmarks that no one’s done before, and that’s sort of unique,” Flaig said. “I just like to share them, people like to see where they live from an angle they haven’t seen before, and it’s kind of neat to see that so it’s fun to share it when it lands somewhere with people who live around there.”

High-altitude balloons are, more traditionally, used by meteorologists to track temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure for forecasting purposes. But people experimenting with different uses for the balloons and posting their videos on YouTube have helped the hobby gain popularity as a school project or fun family activity.

Garrett Schroeder, 14, of Garnavillo, was so interested in making a near-space balloon he put together a PowerPoint presentation for the local school board to persuade them to help him fund his project and launch a near-space balloon from school grounds as part of the Talented and Gifted program he was enrolled in last March.

Schroeder, who aspires to be an aeronautical engineer and is working on getting his glider license, has always been fascinated with space and rockets.

“There’s no atmosphere up that high, so there’s nothing slowing that down,” Schroeder said. “I don’t know, it was just really neat watching the balloon go through the layers of the atmosphere in the video and how you get so high up and you don’t hear any wind. It’s just so peaceful.”

Construction and launch

With as little as $150 and access to the Internet, anyone can make a near-space balloon. And it only takes a couple of hours.

Though those who construct them use various materials and devices, the typical near-space balloon requires a latex weather balloon, helium, an insulated Styrofoam box, video camera, still camera, GPS device or ham radio, string, a parachute and some duct tape.

Cameras and GPS equipment are placed inside the box, called a payload, which is attached to a weather balloon and a parachute. The balloon then is filled with helium on-site and launched into the air.

It usually takes about four hours for the balloons to rise to their maximum altitude before the balloon expands, explodes and plummets back to Earth — causing its launchers to go on a mad race to find the balloon once it’s visible on their GPS (a typical GPS device stops working at 30,000 feet).

Many launchers end up having their balloons travel farther than intended, and they sometimes get lost or go missing for an extended period of time before they are returned.

Even though the Federal Aviation Administration does not require balloon launchers to inform them of a launch if their payload is under six pounds, those who perform the hobby said they usually call the FAA to inform them anyway, or try to avoid launching a balloon in restricted airspace.

Though the cost and time commitment could be off-putting to some, those who have tried the hobby say they’ve found it rewarding.

“It’s fun,” Flaig said. “It’s like opening a present when you get the cameras back, you don’t know what you’re going to get and you hope you cached something really interesting ... half the fun, is looking at the cameras and figuring out what happened.”

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