Start Your Own Space Program for $148

The Vision

This is a story that I find inspiring.  Since it’s also about photography and space, I find it even more inspiring. It’s about two MIT students who wanted to photograph the “edge of space.”

It started when Oliver Yeh had a vision. He wanted to see the curvature of the earth and the blackness of space from high up in the stratosphere.  Many of his friends thought he was crazy.  Not Justin Lee. Lee accepted the vision and made it his own.  So together they set out to accomplish the task.

The Ingenuity

Like others before them, Yeh and Lee decided to use a weather balloon  filled with helium  to lift a small camera up into the stratosphere.  They bought a 300 gram latex balloon online.  Balloons are capable of reaching altitudes of 20 miles or more. Unlike others before them, they didn’t have thousands of dollars to spend on custom electronics.  Instead, they solved difficult technical problems with inexpensive off-the-shelf solutions.  Here’s how.

From their research, they learned that temperatures in the stratosphere can reach down to -55 degrees Centigrade.  They couldn’t get their freezer to go any colder than -10 degrees Centigrade.  So they couldn’t test whether their point and shoot camera (a Canon A470) and its battery could operate at such a cold temperature.  Batteries stop working and electronics fail when they get cold enough.

What did they do?  They decided to use pocket hand warmers (the kind skiers use) to warm the camera and its battery.  The hand warmers were taped tightly against the electronic devices and batteries. They also put everything (electronic devices and hand warmers) into a styrofoam beer cooler, which became their “spacecraft.”  The hand warmers worked so well,  they were still warm when they recovered the craft after a 5 hour flight.

How did they trigger the camera?  They found a firmware hack, CHDK, that included an intervalometer.  With it, the camera could be programmed to take a picture every 5 seconds.

Another difficult problem for Yeh and Lee was how to recover the craft.  They knew the balloon would burst when it got high enough, since the weight of the atmosphere is no longer compressing the balloon.  So, they created a simple parachute from  a plastic bag.  They tested the parachute by dropping the spacecraft and parachute off a 5 story building with an egg inside.  If the egg didn’t break, then the landing was soft enough for the equipment to survive.

The most difficult problem was how to track the craft so they could find it when it came down. From their research, they discovered that the wind could drag it many miles away from the launch site.  Here’s where their ingenuity really shined.  Neither Yeh nor Lee had any electronics background.  What did they do?  They went to Radio Shack and bought a $50 cell phone with GPS. The cell phone was taped to the camera and constantly reported its GPS location via text messages.  It could also be tracked with Google Earth.

The Launch

On the day of the launch, things did not go exactly as planned. The balloon was launched on Sept. 2, 2009 at 11:45 am. They had previously checked with the University of Wyoming’s balloon trajectory website to estimate the landing site.  So, they launched from Sturbridge, Massachusetts (central Massachusetts) to make sure the balloon didn’t come down in a city or in the Atlantic. Fortunately, the winds were light.

Yeh and Lee remained at the launch site for 4 hours after the launch. During that time, they lost contact with the craft. As time progressed, they wondered: had the phone’s battery died?  Had it froze? Did the craft crash? … They thought of everything that could possibly have gone wrong.

With those thoughts, they headed back home, believing that they had lost the craft.  When they got to Lee’s apartment and checked his computer (presumably Google Earth’s cell tracking service), they found that a signal had been sent by the cell phone before it hit the ground.  The camera had come down 25 miles from the launch site and landed in a construction site near Worcester.  “We were so excited, we jumped right back into the car, and we drove out to Worcester, and we found it. That was a great moment,” Lee said.

The Results

They calculated (from the balloon’s ascent rate and time aloft) that their craft had reached an altitude of about 98,000 feet (over 18 miles).  It was so high that it took 40 minutes for it to come down by parachute.  The pictures are stunning.  Here’s the one most often published.

Oliver Yeh and Justin Lee's photograph from 98,000 feet

You can also see a video of the entire flight on their site,

The Cost

What is amazing about this story is that the total cost of their spacecraft was $148. You can check out their list of items and costs on their site,

The Possibilities

Why am I re-telling this story?  Because it opens up incredible possibilities that were always there, but we just didn’t see them. In Oliver Yeh’s words,

“The fact that we were able to accomplish space photography on such a low budget and with minimal electronic modifications proves that it’s really possible for anyone—anyone at all—to do. Imagine how many students might be inspired if their high school science teacher took the time to give his students an out-of-this-world experience.”

What other possibilities does this suggest? Here’s just a few that come to mind.

  • On similar craft, put a self-addressed, pre-paid Fedex label on the box, so that whoever finds it can just drop it in the mail.
  • Use a small transmitter to radio the images and data back to you.  That way, all is not lost if the craft disappears.
  • Instead of a styrofoam box, use a styrofoam glider with an electronic autopilot and GPS to bring the craft and camera back to the launch site.  This is a difficult project but not as expensive as you may think. sells a computer with software that they call an “ArduPilot.”  A complete autopilot with GPS can be built from their parts for around $300.
  • Instead of letting the balloon rise until it pops, adjust the volume of the balloon and mass of the craft so that it floats at a specified altitude for a while.  You’ll get a lot more pictures.  You may then need to find a way to pop the balloon (a timer and a servo maybe) to get it back.
  • Launch a rocket from the balloon to get even more altitude.
  • Add a servo to control the camera’s attitude so you can get shots looking straight down as well as out to the side of the craft.

This project also opened up new possibilites for Oliver Yeh and Justin Lee.  They are now known as aerial photographers.  They helped photograph the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico using balloons and kites.  Since our government is placing restrictions on flight over the affected area, getting photos of the devastation is difficult.  Balloons, kites and RC helicopters provide ways of getting around the restrictions and recording the environmental impact for public awareness.

Ask Yourself This

Are there any photographic or scientific projects you’ve always wanted to do but assumed you couldn’t?  It’s well worth taking the time to let go of assumptions about what is possible, and really look with an open mind for creative solutions.   As my mentor and friend Harold Feinstein says, “The problem is everything you know that isn’t so.”

Let your imagination soar!

News Coverage

Here’s the major coverage I found with a Google search.

CNN Story and Video



ABC News Video

Fox News Video

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