APPROACHING THE FINAL FRONTIER
■ BY L. PAUL VERHAGE
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FLIGHT 100: A REPORT
AND A REFLECTION
It’s hard to believe, but I’ve flown 100 near space missions. It all began in
1994 when amateur radio operator Pete Sias (N0OY) presented on near space
to the Manhattan Area Amateur Radio Society (MAARS). That presentation
committed me to flying experiments into near space. It took me two years
to get started. However, since my first flight in November 1996 I’ve launched
near space missions with a nearly religious zeal.
Isuppose what initially hooked me was Pete’s image of the earth taken from near space. The earth’s horizon
was curved and the sky was black. You would swear that
only an astronaut could record such an image. In fact, on
two occasions photo lab technicians processing my near
space images have asked if I was an astronaut. I was also
attracted to near space because Pete showed how it
incorporated three of my current interests: GPS receivers,
digital radio, and microcontrollers. Pete’s presentation
united these three into a single project that allowed me to
indulge my spaceflight interest.
In 100 missions, my near spacecraft have reached
peak altitudes from eight feet to over 114,600 feet. The
winds have carried them to landing sites ranging from nine
miles away to over 160 miles. Ninety-five of them were
recovered shortly after landing (with one caught as it
■ FIGURE 1. A reusable lunch sack is soft-sided and
insulated. So as an airframe, it holds up quite well to
landing and remains warmer inside than outside. In this
photo, the antenna is the two red wires attached to the
aluminum and fiberglass boom protruding from the left
side of the airframe.
landed) and only one remains lost today.
My near space missions have measured cosmic rays,
sound transmission, air pressure, air temperature, relative
humidity, and sky brightness and color. Images have been
recorded on color film, infrared film, VHS tape, and now
digitally. Bacteria, yeast, and cockroaches have taken their
turn riding my near spacecraft and my missions have
released gliders, parachutes, and potato chips. I’m now
involved with a dissertation to study the effect of
BalloonSats on attitude toward science. It’s been a pretty
amazing 15 years.
Hays, KS has a university — Fort Hays State University
— and one of the school’s physics professors is Dr. Adams.
I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Adams last year over
email while he was president of KATS: the Kansas
Association of Teachers of Science. He recently
mentioned to me that he was interested in developing a
near space program for Fort Hays. As usual, I was only too
happy to offer my help. Therefore, I found myself visiting
the campus last November to discuss near space to
science students. I went back in December to help launch
their first mission from the fairgrounds outside of town
and not far from the campus.
Fort Hays packed their GPS tracker inside of an
insulated lunch sack. The empty volume inside is packed
with foam rubber sheets. I believe this method was first
developed by the Treasure Valley Near Space Project
(TVNSP) in 2000. I’ve since recommended changes to the
design that permits the tracking module to use a wire
dipole antenna. You can see this modification in Figure 1.
Because the surface wind was light that morning, the