Who needs NASA?
A Park Slope father and son started a space program of their own when they launched a homemade ship into the heavens, and captured some incredible footage of the very edge of the airless abyss that borders our world.
Cinematographer Luke Geissbuhler used a weather balloon and a few other simple materials to send a tiny videocamera on a 70-minute joyride into the stratosphere — nearly 20 miles above the ground — before it successfully parachuted back to earth, landing just 30 miles away from the launch pad.
“We were stunned it went up so quickly,” Geissbuhler said. “We were stunned every step of the way.”
Before bursting from lack of atmospheric pressure, the balloon was still technically 30 miles shy of so-called “outer space,” but you wouldn’t know from the video. The infinite black void of the cosmos is clearly visible beyond the clouds of the big blue marble’s lower atmosphere.
Geissbuhler was happy with mission’s out-of-this-world success, but didn’t want to encourage others to mimic his homemade Hubble without first checking with the authorities.
That might be prudent advice, since a spokesperson from the Federal Aviation Administration said that launching such unmanned balloons could violate several laws if the payload is too big or heavier than four pounds.
And it’s always illegal to launch from an urban area — a rule that Geissbuhler got around by driving an hour north to Newburgh.
Geissbuhler said he made sure to follow FAA protocol, and added that his payload was only a pound-and-a-half.
He also took lots of time to prepare.
The balloonist and his son spent eight months planning, which included “testing” at their home and in Prospect Park, as well as devising a simple method for retrieving the package once it landed back on Earth.
They included an iPhone inside the balloon’s Styrofoam case, and used the Internet to locate the package, which ended up high in a tree.
Hand-warmers kept the camera functional in the –60-degree frigidity of space.
Watching the video cements Geissbuhler’s status as world’s greatest dad. But he admitted he was pretty excited about the project, too.
“My son, Max, wanted to build a rocket. But honestly, I would have done it without him,” he said.
Before takeoff, the camera captures all the fun: the pre-flight checklist, the giddy countdown, liftoff and then the bliss of the upper atmosphere and space. At almost exactly 19 miles above earth, the video captures the moment when the balloon bursts and the spacecraft begins its descent at 150 mph.
The camera cut out just seconds before landing, and doesn’t tell how this story almost had a major malfunction.
The payload landed in a dense forest at night, and Geissbuhler couldn’t find it.
What he did eventually find was a light that had broken off and fallen to the ground, and that saved the entire project.
“We found the light just before we were about to give up,” Geissbuhler said. “It turned out the ship was in the tree above me.”
He returned a few days later, which can be seen in the last frame of the video where Geissbuhler and son hold up the slightly bashed-up contraption.
“This thing went to space!” the caption reads.