by Craig Weatherby
The United States government designates people who travel above an altitude of 50 miles “astronauts.”
So it stunned many space scientists when a father and young son from New York succeeded in sending an HD camera and iPhone 19 miles high into the upper stratosphere... and getting them back.
The camera recorded the flight, and you can see the amazing—sometimes dizzying—results.
Luke Geissbühler and his seven-year-old son Max attached the camera and iPhone to a weather balloon.
They hoped it would rise so high that lack of atmosphere would burst the balloon, that it would fall back to Earth, and that the GSP app on the phone would let them track it down.
Countdown to near-space flight
The balloon had to survive glacial temperatures, high winds, and a possible splashdown in water.
They did some low-altitude testing and then launched their balloon from a park in Newburgh, New York, which was a sparsely populated area near a party store that sells helium.
The camera and iPhone were held in a small capsule tethered to the balloon, and protected from sub-zero temperatures by chemical hand-warming packets.
The capsule was simply a takeout food container with spray-on insulation applied to the interior.
The balloon climbed at 25 feet per second, and after about 70 minutes it reached about 100,000 feet, where it burst and then descended on a small parachute, landing safely 30 miles away from the launch site.
The Geissbühlers spent the evening and night searching for the balloon, and the iPhone’s GPS eventually guided them to the top of a large tree.
Video makes a viral splash on the 'Net
The camera was able to record 100 minutes of footage. This short video made by the father and son team has become a viral hit receiving over a million views. (if you have trouble viewing it here, click the "Homemade Spacecraft" link under the video frame.)
Patient Dad helps persistent son
Luke Geissbühler is a director and cinematographer, and had been involved in research on weather balloon enthusiasts for a feature film.
He decided to do the project at the request of his son, who had been lobbying for a homemade spacecraft.
Mr. Geissbühler completed the project with assistance from his brother Phillip, a Boston-based physicist, who helped them figure in factors such as high winds, low temperatures, and how to predict the balloon’s behavior.
Up, up, and away, indeed!