Our Day in Space

August 23, 2010

Sunday, August 8th: 97,497 feet!

Months of work, a trial launch still to be recovered (lost at 95,000 feet) a night-before crunch finishing up the details…

Four of us, Jon, Matt, Mandy (our Hackerspaces in Space Contest Judge), and Doug meet at the shop at 8am on Sunday. Matt already
has the helium tank in the back of his car. We decide it’ll be better to take two cars. Reading between the lines (in hindsight), I think Jon has to drive any vehicle he’s in, so it wouldn’t have worked for all of us to pile into Matt and Mandy’s UTE thing.

The balloon stuff was already arranged into a heap in the shop and ready to go. We check the weather and flight path and finalize our launch site. Destination: Perkins Park (41.0772N, 81.5489W) NW of Akron, OH. Ham radios set on 146.520 (simplex) for car to car
communications, we set out just about 8:30. Taking a slight detour through downtown, we take 279N heading for the PA Turnpike West.

Another last minute Sunday morning decision is to toss a few cheap handwarmers in on top of the batteries keep them warm; we didn’t actually have any handwarmers at the shop. Aaaaand Jon needed to refill his car’s gas tank, so we stop in Cranberry for supplies. Matt and Mandy go to Walmart for the handwarmers while Jon gasses up. Rendezvous’ing in the Walmart parking lot, we decide to make one more stop before continuing on to Ohio: Krispy Kreme. Krispy Kreme is “on our way to the turnpike” (though to be fair, Mandy and I had conspired to make this stop the night before, so it wasn’t as last minute as it might have seemed). Coffee is as important as the donuts, all of which we got ‘to go’. It was about 9:30 as we got on to the Turnpike to leave Cranberry.

The PA/OH turnpike trip to Akron is uneventful.
We arrive at the park around 11:30am.

The green arrow is very close to where we actually launched.
Park on Google Map
The park looks pretty much as it did from the Google Map satellite view. We spend several minutes looking for “The Facilities”. Jon claims to have found a place au natural, but the rest of us decline; we unload Matt’s car into the middle of the park’s ballfield. There are a number of folks (locals) playing basketball on the adjacent courts, but they don’t bother us or even ask what we’re doing.

Jon and Matt carry the honkin’ heavy helium tank

and we make a few more trips to get the rest. The wind is worrisomely gusty and intermittent but we decide to proceed and hope we’ll catch a lull to launch.

The camera, a Cannon SD300 running a CHDK interval timer script, is the first thing to go into the payload. Our payload is a scanvenged styrofoam cooler. The kind you can find at a drug store for $2 or less during the summer. Matt fires up the camera and I tape it in.
HackPittsburgh Balloon Launch
As you can see from the full photo set (a link to all the balloon photos is on the A2 page, link below), we got lucky and accidently positioned the payload such that the every-20-seconds pictures caught most of our preparations. But I digress… Next into the payload is the kit APRS radio, GPS, and batteries, which Matt places and tapes down.
HackPittsburgh Balloon Launch
The handwarmers are last… Matt tapes them loosely over the batteries, since they need oxygen to make heat. We tape the payload closed and then tape the cradling net that Isaac built to the side of the payload. I think we even remember to check that the radio is working before everything is sealed up. Jon writes “Harmless Radio Equipment”

and “Smile” (above the camera, not visible in this picture), along with some phone numbers, on the outside. Just in case we lose it and someone else manages to find it.

We learned from our trial launch that the balloon inflates… fast. We also learned to have the parts and pieces ready so that attaching the balloon can go as quickly as possible. With everything else ready, Jon attaches the helium feed line, Matt zip ties the balloon neck and
I turn on the tank. In a very short time we have three pounds of lift (1.5 times payload weight is the recommended lift amount).
HackPittsburgh Balloon Launch
Another few minutes and the chute’s attached to the balloon. We could use another person to help stabilize the balloon in the wind (Mandy was Judge and was off photo documenting, not participating) but everything is working out OK so far.

After re-verifying that the radio is transmitting, Mandy counts down the launch to 12:13pm and Matt releases the payload up into the sky.

And up it goes, very quickly.

At our trial launch, the balloon stayed overhead for at least 20 minutes and we tracked it visually past 30,000 feet. This time the balloon takes off East immediately.
We pack up and put the equipment back in the cars, constantly checking the sky.

The APRS network picks up the balloon at 2316 feet, moving East NorthEast. Luckily OH has a good number of APRS digipeaters! I remembered to bring binoculars this time and we visually track the balloon up to around 24,000 feet. Low clouds or haze (or both) along with the balloon’s quick Eastward movement mean we don’t linger at the launch site as we did at the test launch.

As we pack up to leave the launch site, curiosity finally overcomes the locals and they start asking who we are and what we are doing. Some think we are (with) MythBusters. Matt does a good job explaning the contest and what we are doing while the rest of us keep eyes skyward.

We leave the lauch site in pursuit of… bathrooms! Our first stop is a mutant McDonalds: a small building with locked doors; it is drive-thru only! Arg! Next stop is a gas station… with no bathrooms. Finally, we find a real McDs and partake of the facilities. The balloon is still climbing and moving East. We monitor it via cell phones while waiting in line. No one notices our banter is unusual or out of place.

1:00pm, the balloon reaches 60,000 feet and turns almost due West. Back on the road we decide to try to anticipate where it might land. Hoping it will follow close to the path that we got from the predictor this morning, we head South on Rt 77 and then East.

1:27pm, the balloon tops out at 97,479 feet! We hold our collective breaths. Thirty-ish seconds later, another APRS report: 95,174. It’s starting to come down! This is where we lost the trial balloon, on its way down. Will the tracker continue to work? We used a lot more line between the balloon and the chute and between the chute and the payload. We hope that is making the difference. A few more APRS reports come in and we can breath easier.

Ten minutes go by, and its down to 54,688 (falling quite fast!) and moving East again. Somewhere along the line we stop near the corner of Applegrove and Middlebranch to wait, as the payload is still going East.

Once the payload crosses Middlebranch, to our North, we get back into the cars and on to the road. I watch the position reports on aprs.fi via my laptop and MiFi, Matt and Mandy in the other car. Mandy is driving, Matt has the binoculars, and I am navigating in Jon’s car, calling out the altitude and general direction over the radio. Sadly we can’t seem to get an eye ball on it while it is in the air (and we never do).

North on Middlebranch, right to go East on State St, we’re a bit behind the payload and it’s starting to go slightly South. We turn right on Ravenna and it continues to drop; six thousand feet and it turns to the Northeast. I want to go back to State St, but Jon is nervous about parking and going ‘in’ (to find it) from that side, too many big mansions. And probably lots of guard dogs, though we do not speak of that.

South on Ravenna we turn right to go West on Easton St. It’s close but still, maddeningly, we cannot see it. Trees along the North side of the street block our view and in a few minutes we’re sure it’s down. Last APRS update is at 2,657 feet right over a strip of trees. We cannot pick up its radio signal on our portable handheld radios either. Hopefully that means it is on the ground and not hanging from some branches far above our heads.

We turn North on a gravel access road; a gravel road with a strip of grass down the middle that is scraping the bottom of Jon’s car in a rather concerning, if not alarming, manner.

At 40 53.34N 81 15.84W we park, in front of several large tanks of gas and near to an non-operating oil well pump.
HackPittsburgh Balloon Launch

Little do we know, but we are only 856 yards from the payload. We do know that we are South, but don’t know how far East the payload may have continued. Walking North to the end of the gravel, we then wade through a field of Soybean plants, coming to a thin grove of
trees. We turn East for a bit then push back North through the trees to the fields on the other side. Several exciting moments when we spot a splash of orange in the canopy, only to be disappointed, but relieved, that it is just a bright clump of leaves.

We’re having no luck finding the payload and its orange chute. Matt decides we should go to its last known location and start from there. Passing along the South end of a cornfield, and the North edge of the same band of trees, we head West. The last known location
was directly above the West end of these trees. The fields here run North/South and have strips of trees between them.

Jon and Matt are in the lead. As they pass through the trees and bramble on the West side of the corn field, we hear them shout and break into a run. The payload, chute, and most of the balloon is near the far West side of the next (fallow) field.

The red flag is very close to where the payload landed.
Landing point on Google Maps
HackPittsburgh Balloon Launch

The full APRS track (including some glitches)

Had it landed 20 feet further West, it would have been in the trees edging the field. We are… ecstatic! Listening, we can hear that the camera is still running. You can see us, curious, silhouetted against the sky:
as we marvel at our luck, hoping that the camera’s memory card has survived.

We decide it’s best to not tarry long in the fields and that we’ll open the cooler back at the cars. With the payload’s camera still clicking, I carry the payload back through the trees and the Soybean field to the gravel road. I’m lagging a little behind everyone else, somewhat dazed from the heat and our fortune at recovering the payload.

Once back at the vehicles, we take a few more pictures and then Matt proceeds to cut open the payload and remove the camera.

Our priority is to make sure we have good pictures. We think our ‘launch to recovery time’ is pretty good. Much later we find out that we’ve just squeaked in under the cost limit. We know we did well on having a light payload at just over 2lbs, so now we “just” need the pictures. Matt cuts into the payload and removes the camera. In a matter of about 10 minutes we have all copied the photos on to our laptops… Despite the bright sun washing out our laptop screens, we start going through the pictures:


We not only have some great shots, we have the ‘by luck’ pictures of our setup, and the pictures of walking back to the car!

We have a spare balloon with us, plenty of helium, a working radio and camera, and the handwarmers are still warm… I want to do another launch. But cooler heads prevail (we haven’t even had a proper lunch)… there are other shop members we want to have with us on the next launch.

We load up to head home. The balloon, which should have shredded into almost dust, or at least spaghetti, is mostly intact. And it STINKS. We put it into Jon’s trunk, since Matt and Mandy’s car doesn’t have a trunk, just a big open space behind the seats. We want to savor
our victory, but not quite that way!

We arrive back at the shop around 5:30ish and hang the balloon from an overhead beam as a trophy. As we drive back, celebratory calls, emails and twitters are going out. We hang out at the shop for a while, sending out more notes. Isaac and his friend are waiting for us when we arrive, and we show them the payload pictures before they have to leave for another commitment.

Matt, Mandy, Jon, and Jon’s fiancée Susan head out for dinner. I go home to shower off all the pollen and other junk I picked up in the brush. Everyone but me is wearing long pants. Shorts kept me cooler, but made the on-foot trip to find the balloon more of a challenge.

Ninety seven thousand four hundred and ninety seven feet.
With pictures and APRS data to prove it.
Oh Yeah!

We still have our extra balloon and lots of ideas for additional flights…


The following HackPittsburgh shop members worked regularly on the balloon contest, and made this day possible. We wish everyone could have come out for this amazing day.

  • Matt Stultz KB3TAN (RingMaster) (A1, A2)
  • Jon Speicher (Parachute maker) (A1, A2)
  • Isaac Gierard KB3TOU (Cord/Knot master) (A1)
  • Chris Yohe KA3YNW (A1)
  • Marick Michalowski (Styrofoam cutter, A1 payload camera work)
  • Doug Philips KB3TOA (A1, A2)
  • Sayan Chakraborty KB3TOV
  • Mandy James KB3UGX (Judge) (A2)

More details of each launch:
A1 (test launch)
A2 (contest launch)

5 Responses to “Our Day in Space”

  1. I’m planning on a balloon launch this year. What size helium tank did you use? And why did you launch from Ohio? I’m in Pittsburgh.

  2. We used a large party size tank from a party supply store, though we’re looking for a good deal on a used tank so that we can launch without hassling with renting a tank.

    We launched in Ohio because if we launched from near Pittsburgh, the landing area terrain would be unfavorable. Ohio is relatively flat and full of farms. PA is hilly, tree and stream covered. Not friendly for retrieving a balloon.

  3. I’m looking into setting up two chase vehicles with radios and APRS tracking software. Did you have any trouble using wireless Internet?

  4. […] always welcome to attend.  Read the amazing story and see photos of our first successful launch in Our Day in Space.  Our latest successful launch info can be found in LEAD Balloon Launch […]

  5. […] Our Day in Space for a much more detailed description of how one of our previous launches […]

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