Arguably, there aren't many scenes more photogenic than a sunrise on a crisp, clear winter morning — especially one viewable from an altitude of 100,000 feet.
On Dec. 1, John Flaig headed west from Shorewood toward the small town of Cresco in northeastern Iowa, with a mission of capturing HD video and photos of the sunrise and moonset from so-called "near space."
The next morning, after reassessing its predicted descent, Flaig traveled further west and launched a stratospheric weather balloon from Calmar, IA. Attached was an orange box labeled “NOT DANGEROUS” above an American flag, his phone number, and an offer of a cash reward for finding the package.
Inside that box was the payload: two video cameras, one still camera, which he hacked to take photos every 15 minutes, a GPS tracking device, and a smart phone with a tracking app installed.
Flaig's cameras yielded 3,000 breath-taking, NASA-like photos and three hours of video of Earth and "near space" on its 4 and a half hour trip through the stratosphere. Flaig estimates it reached an altitude of 110,000 feet — and a passenger jet nearing knocked the balloon out of the sky. (View all of Flaig's photos and video on his website).
"I was blown away," Flaig said of the photos captured at "near space." "I had some idea of what it could look like ... but when you see the raw video and photos on a big-screen TV, it's truly amazing."
Inspired by YouTube videos of ordinary people launching weather balloons and the "intriguing and awe-inspiring footage" they captured from the stratosphere, Flaig set out to join the amateur space program.
And with a wealth of information online, he educated himself on launching a successful flight.
"It seemed extraordinary that with a little effort and not too much money any ordinary person could accomplish such a feat," said Flaig, a computer programmer working in West Allis. "When Felix Baumgartner jumped from the Red Bull Stratos in October that sealed the deal. I was inspired by the video from the event to go for it."
Using online tools created by the Cambridge University Space Flight (CUSF) program to calculate the balloon’s flight path, Flaig predicted the payload would land in Slinger. He made the trip to Iowa to ensure the payload wouldn't land in Lake Michigan, but the balloon didn't land in either location. Instead, the payload traversed the lake and made its descent in Cedar Springs, MI, north of Grand Rapids, landing 40 feet up in a tree in the woods behind a house.
Flaig knows just one person in Michigan, a long-time friend, who luckily lives just 13 miles from where the balloon made its landing.
"Needless to say I called him. He drove right over and met with the homeowner. She turned out to be very nice and agreed to help get the payload out of the tree and FedEx everything back to me," Flaig said. "I promised to pay the expenses and send her some Wisconsin cheese."
Preparing for launch
Outside of the helium for the balloon, Flaig said most of the equipment in the payload were easy to obtain.
"At this point little original thinking is required," he said. "It seems as though within the last few years this 'hobby' has become much more accessible, likely due in part to the advent of new and cheaper mobile technology. A radio transmitter, HAM license, and electronics and soldering skills are no longer required to track and recover a high altitude balloon."
He spent a day rigging the box which would house the payload, painting the box blaze orange so it would stand out, cutting holes for the cameras to peak out, and lined the box with foam to keep various devices in place.
As temperatures at 100,000 feet or more can reach 70 degrees below zero, he rigged his payload with heat packs, placing them next to batteries, which can stop working at extreme temps.
He outfitted the box with a Sony Handycam HDR-CX190, GoPro Hero 2, and Canon PowerShot as1100, 32GB cards and batteries that would record for up to four hours.
Lastly, he fitted to box with a Spot GPS device, which he faced toward the sky to help track the payload and ensure a clear signal.
Then, Flaig used an iPad 2 to visit GPS websites and track the balloon after launch. On the drive back to Wisconsin, he frantically checked the status of his balloon. At one point, the status read the balloon landed in Delavan, WI just east of Janesville off Interstate 43. But, after the website updated, he realized the payload had landed much farther away in Michigan.
"The signal had shifted," he said. "It was no longer coming from Delavan. As I zoomed out on the map I couldn’t believe my eyes as I saw the city name of Muskegon appear on the map. The balloon had crossed Lake Michigan and had either landed just east of Muskegon 130 miles away from Delavan or was still heading east, deeper into Michigan. I could hardly believe it."
Flaig has plans for another voyage deep into the earth's atmosphere to capture more sights from "near space."
"The first one was so nerve-racking, I thought I’d never do it again,” he said. “But, within a week, I ordered another balloon."