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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

It's coming together!

Well, I'm learning a lot about near-space technologies and the math of what needs to happen. This weekend I experimented and relatively safely produced small amounts of hydrogen that lifted several small balloons into the air. The chemical reaction needs to be controlled, however, due to heat and the caustic nature of chemicals involved. When sodium hydroxide comes into contact with latex, even the fumes of the sodium hydroxide can be very dangerous and start eating away at the balloon; two of them popped before I was able to fill them up completely. So, after thinking about a way to do this on a larger scale that would do what I need, it finally came to me on Monday. I have an idea of how to produce hydrogen; while of course hydrogen is flammable I think it will be reasonably safe given the small amounts I'm needing for this.

On another note, I also realized that the 3-foot (30 gram) weather balloons I purchased will not have enough lift to do that job. I put in an order for 2 weather balloons that are 6.5 feet in diameter (200 gram), as the 3-footers could only lift the gps device...can't take pictures like that.

So, it's a learning process. I also learned from my neighbor and math professor the mathematical (who'd of guessed it? lol) issues behind my goal of obtaining a sunrise photo from near-space. My plan is to release the balloon payload at the appropriate time before sunrise and take pictures of the sun as it comes around the sphere of the Earth; that would be an awesome photo, an image often reserved for astronauts.

Also, the camera I have isn't up to the job either. Thinking that any digital camera could be hacked to take pictures every 5-10 seconds, I didn't pay enough attention and I've learned another valuable lesson. I returned the camera and purchased a Canon brand that can download CHDK (Canon Hacker's Development Kit); another lesson learned.

I imagine there will be many lessons like this as I put this project together. I have to say I'm completely willing to learn these lessons and admit to mistakes as they come up. Suffice it to say, my drive to reach near-space and put a camera up there is sufficient to get this done...we will make it to near-space.

One thing has worked without any hitches or glitches. The gps enabled phone has worked flawlessly every time. I added a small antenna to the inside of the phone, because looking to my east there are some really isolated areas and I'm concerned that signal could be lost if we go too far east. I've been paying attention to the jet stream, and currently it is over Arkansas and Louisiana reaching speeds up to 120-mph (as of 2/23/2010). I'm not launching while the jet stream is overhead...I love the ocean, but driving to Georgia to pick up my camera isn't what I had in

So, the new camera that is CHDK compatible is in the mail, the larger balloons are in the mail, and I'm learning more about my payload and how to get the weight down. I'm hoping to make my own hydrogen to keep future mission costs down and increase self-sufficiency. Of course, some might think this is dangerous, and I suppose it potentially could be but hear me out. The amounts of hydrogen I'm producing are very small, and I don't plan on picking up a cigarette or cigar smoking habit anytime soon. It is produced outside, in a well-ventilated area, and is produced and put directly into the balloon shortly before launching the craft. The apparatus to safely and efficiently produce hydrogen is a work in progress, and I'm developing it in a responsible and cost-effective manner.

I found a lighter payload container as well. The one I used before was a heavy-duty styrofoam container (not like those cheap ice-chests used in other launches....I can stand on mine without breaking it and I'm a 5' 11" 215-pound man), but this one is just as strong yet smaller and lighter. The walls and lid are just as thick (2-3 inches thick) as the old one, but it's shorter. I don't need any extra room besides enough to put the gps phone and camera, along with hand-warmers taped to them. Other than that, I'll put something light inside to hold the camera steady, but that is it. I'm learning that weight is one of the most important considerations; yes I know, it might sound common-sense, but you'd be surprised how heavy a payload can get simply putting things like fins on the sides and cardboard tube to keep the camera in place. JP Aerospace uses trusses that are apparently made of carbon fiber. I won't have that kind of budget, but PVC tubing might work. Regardless, the entire payload must be under 4 pounds per FAA regulations.

I'll start posting pictures about this project as it moves forward. If successful, I plan on selling advertising spots in order to fund my ultimate goal: a small restaurant and viewing area at the edge of space. Depending upon donations and sales, this could take anywhere from a few short years to a decade or more, but make no mistake: my goal is to make near-space affordable and attainable to the masses. Views of space should not, and must not be limited to those who can afford a "budget" ticket of $200,000. Even though it admittedly is far cheaper than a $23 million-dollar trip to the ISS, or a $100 million-dollar trip in a Russian space capsule slingshot around the moon (yes, a company says they can do it for $100 million...what a deal!). If a person saved long enough, by retirement they could potentially pay $200,000 for a quick trip to suborbital space. However, I'm wanting to do this in a truly sustainable and profitable fashion. A high-altitude airship would be the cheapest & safest way to see the Earth from near-space. Ticket prices could be affordable to many; instead of going on a 3-day cruise, how about a day or evening in near-space? $500-$5,000 is what I'm hoping for. $5,000 if I can turn it into a near-space hotel for a handful of guests...don't expect the swimming pool though :-)! I'm thinking people could pay $500 or a bit more to board the craft in the late afternoon, have a dinner pre-ordered so we can keep weight and costs down (your meal would be chosen beforehand, but prepared up in near-space so it's fresh and yummy but I don't have to keep 100 things on the menu...or maybe a choice of 3-5 items?). Well, that is enough for now. I'll write more later. After the first successful launch, I'm going to start letting individuals, companies, and organizations of any and all flavors sponsor a launch with varying dollar amounts. A logo or slogan of their choosing will then be recorded and flown into near-space and be recorded on camera. It's going to take a bit of doing to get that established, and I need to have a successful launch with pictures. Time will tell...

I hope at some point you'll join me for drinks and dinner at 100,000 feet...the sunset will be fabulous.

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