by L. Paul Verhage
Many of us dream of exploring space. Two outlets for
this dream are amateur astronomy and rocketry.
Neither of these hobbies, though, can match the sheer
awe of building and launching a private spacecraft.
Unfortunately, there are major roadblocks to this dream
of amateur space exploration.
No doubt, you can list the many obstacles that stop
us from constructing a spacecraft; my list goes like this.
We cannot build our own spacecraft because of the high
cost of space-rated materials, the difficulty of machining
spacecraft parts, and the amount of time involved in construction. In addition, our lack of access to a clean room
and our inability to properly test a spacecraft at various
stages of its construction will stop us, even if we do have
the necessary parts, skills, and free time.
If we manage to build a spacecraft, I can think of two
additional obstacles stopping us from launching it. These
after-construction obstacles are the length of time we
must wait for the launch and the cost of the launch itself.
How can we justify the time and money needed to assemble a spacecraft when we know that we will wait a year for
launch and that we can hardly afford the launch in the
NUTS & VOLTS
Even if we construct and launch our spacecraft,
there's one final obstacle: telemetry. As amateurs, we
have no access to professional telemetry stations, nor
can we afford to build a series of public telemetry stations
around the world. If we can't collect data from our spacecraft, then we simply will not build it. Until the hobbyist
can create, launch, and record data from his or her own
spacecraft, there will be no such thing as amateur space
Recently though, hobbyists have found a creative
solution to the dream. They substitute weather balloons
and helium for costly rocket boosters. They use off-the-shelf components to assemble a functioning model of a
spacecraft, and they use amateur radio for spacecraft
telemetry. These few hobbyists are constructing what
are called near spacecraft and launching them deep into
the stratosphere, or near space. A near space program
is often called the poor man's space program and it
makes an amateur science hobby that is nearly out of
This article explores the amateur's version of a near
space program and how it solves the many obstacles
mentioned above. Read this article and you'll learn how
similar near space is to outer space. Then, you'll see how
easy it is for the hobbyist to build his or her own near
spacecraft and launch vehicle. Finally, you'll become
familiar with some of the benefits of starting your own
amateur near space program.
My article is too short to teach you everything you
need to know; however, I hope it will convince you that
an amateur near space program is a hobby that you
can, and should, take up. From there, you can get the
help you need from the resources listed at the end of
The Earth's Atmosphere
Before learning about near space, you must first
become familiar with the structure of our atmosphere.