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image of Earth from balloon
A view of southern New England and Long Island taken at an altitude of nearly 30 kilometers from a balloon launched by a group of MIT students. Many call such imagery “pictures of space” taken by “space balloons”. (credit: 1337arts)

It’s time to pop the space balloon meme


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Have you heard about the balloon that flew to space? What about the paper airplane that floated to Earth from orbit?

If you read Time magazine—or, more accurately, the website of that newsweekly—you might have noticed this on Friday: “To Infinity and Beyond: Watch This Paper Plane Fall to Earth From Orbit”. The blog post, no more than a few paragraphs with little evidence of original reporting, described how a team of people flew a paper airplane to space and had it glide back to Earth.

The “paper spaceplane” seems to be the latest twist on what appears to be an increasingly common phenomenon: flying cameras to high altitudes in balloons, taking pictures of the Earth below and dark sky above, and proclaiming to have flown in, or at least taken pictures of, space.

The only problem: the airplane didn’t “fall to Earth from orbit” because it was never in orbit. Or in space, for that matter: the paper airplane was carried to an altitude of about 27,400 meters (90,000 feet) by a helium balloon, then released to glide (or fall, at least) to Earth. It was a project called Paper Airplane Released In Space (PARIS)—named, apparently, not after the French capital but the socialite Ms. Hilton—and sponsored in part by the British technology publication The Register—which didn’t take the project that seriously, based on its double-entendre-laden coverage.

That playfulness seemed to have been lost on Time, which, in addition to its claim that the airplane flew to Earth from orbit, stated that the plane’s mission was “to take photographs and video footage of the galaxy along the way” (The galaxy? Really?) The event also appeared to trip up one of the world’s most esteemed networks, the BBC, which covered the flight last week. “We’ve never seen anything quite like this: a paper plane launched from space,” reporter Pallab Ghosh states in a voiceover as video of the plane’s release is shown. Later he says that the plane took photos “as it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere” even though the plane and balloon never got higher than about the middle of the stratosphere.

The “paper spaceplane” seems to be the latest twist on what appears to be an increasingly common phenomenon: flying cameras to high altitudes in balloons, taking pictures of the Earth below and dark sky above, and proclaiming to have flown in, or at least taken pictures of, space. The idea isn’t new: in the late 1990s Terence J. Bordelon flew a camera to more than 28,600 meters (94,000 feet) above the California desert. “In 1997, this project took quite a bit of work,” he notes on his web site; it also involved an investment of $1,500. “Nowadays, you could literally do the same thing by tying your phone to a weather balloon and attaching an external antenna.”

That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. There’s been a surge of activity by students and amateurs, taking off-the-shelf electronics and cameras, putting them into simple packages, and flying them into the stratosphere on weather balloons. Last September, for example, a group of MIT students made such a flight, spending only about $150. That was a few months after a less-publicized but similar flight by students at Alabama A&M University. Earlier this year a British amateur got attention for his efforts to fly camera-carrying balloons up to altitudes of 35,000 meters. And in August, a Brooklyn father and his seven-year-old son—part of a group called the “Brooklyn Space Program”, with a flying takeout container as a logo—flew a video camera and an iPhone into the stratosphere. Many others have also flown, attempted, or are planning similar flights in the near future.

The problem is not with the people actually flying the balloons. These are fun projects that, for a modest investment in money (and perhaps a larger investment in time), can result in stunning photos; they’re efforts that by no means should be discouraged. And many of the projects make it clear they don’t consider their efforts spaceflight: the MIT group, Project Icarus, calls its flight last year a “near-space launch”, while British amateur Robert Harrison (who also, confusingly, calls his effort “The Icarus Project”) describes his effort as “a home brew project to send a camera high into the stratosphere to take pictures of the Earth from near space.” Both refer to a vaguely-defined term, “near space”, that has been used in recent years to refer to the region of the upper atmosphere above normal airplane operations but below the Kármán Line, the 100-kilometer altitude commonly used as the boundary of space.

While there is some debate about what should be a suitable “boundary” of space (see “How high is space?”, The Space Review, August 10, 2009), it’s clear that these balloon projects far fall short of even the lowest candidate definition, the 50-mile (80-kilometer) boundary used for awarding astronaut wings by NASA and the US Air Force. So what’s the issue?

The danger is that coverage like this builds up a perception of a spendthrift agency that spends hundreds of millions to provide something that ingenious amateurs do on “beer money budgets”.

The problem is not with projects, but with the media coverage. Take a picture showing a slightly curved, blue-and-white horizon and black sky, and you must be in space, the reasoning must go. “Brooklyn Dad and Kid Send iPhone Into Outer Space”, reads the headline on the web site of New York magazine, about the father-and-son flight this summer. (The use of a iPhone provided an additional bit of catnip to attract elements of the media that at times seem almost unhealthily fascinated with this particular smartphone.) “Journey into space with a balloon and duct tape”, proclaims The Times of London in an article about Harrison’s balloon flights. And we’ve already seen how Time and the BBC have mangled this latest flight (although, curiously, when the BBC covered Harrison’s flight in March it more properly noted the balloon only goes to the “edge of space”.)

This could be dismissed as nothing more than a minor annoyance—yet another example of the media getting it wrong—but for two things. One is that these simple, inexpensive amateur projects are often, if wrongly, contrasted with much more expensive space agency programs. “The $150 Edge-of-Space Camera: MIT Students Beat NASA On Beer-Money Budget” reads the headline of a Wired.com article last year. (How exactly the students beat NASA isn’t specified, and is not elaborated upon in the article.) In The Times of London article, Harrison claims he was contacted by an unidentified individual at NASA asking for more details about the project. “He wanted to know how the hell we did it. He thought we used a rocket. They said it would have cost them millions of dollars,” the article quoted Harrison. (The article’s presumption is that this was an official inquiry by NASA, but it could well be just a curious NASA employee or contractor acting on his own.)

Worse, perhaps, is this ABC News article about Harrison’s work. “A typical space shuttle mission flies 200 miles above the earth’s surface and returns beautiful pictures on the way, but it involves 1,500 people, puts six or seven astronauts at risk and costs, depending on who’s doing the counting, close to half a billion dollars,” the article begins. Harrison, by contrast, “got some pretty good pictures too” but for only $750, as if the two feats were comparable in everything but cost.

The danger is that coverage like this builds up a perception of a spendthrift agency that spends hundreds of millions to provide something that ingenious amateurs do on “beer money budgets”. And while NASA Earth sciences spacecraft do cost in the hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars, the quality and quantity of the imagery and other data they provide is many orders of magnitude better than the digital cameras and smartphones flown on amateurs’ balloon flights.

And, ironically, NASA has a balloon program of its own. The Balloon Program Office, based out of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, coordinates the use of high-altitude balloons for scientific research, such as astronomical observations. Bill Wrobel, director of NASA Wallops, told a Space Transportation Association luncheon audience last week that the agency has 19 missions planned for the coming year, including a campaign of several balloon flights in January and February in Antarctica; other flights are planned from Australia, Sweden, and the US. These are, needless to say, a little larger and more advanced than the repurposed weather balloons used for “space” missions; in addition, Wrobel said NASA is working on a “super pressure” balloon capable of remaining aloft in the stratosphere for well over a month at a time.

What’s fascinating to people is not that they’re pictures of space, but that they’re pictures of Earth from (near) space.

The second problem with this coverage is that it may lower the bar of space too far. If a view of a curved horizon and black sky is all you’re looking for, why bother with, say, a $200,000 suborbital spaceflight? Would people settle instead for something like high-altitude jet flight at a much lower cost? One of the arguments for this initial generation of commercial suborbital RLVs is that they are stepping stones to future orbital vehicles. High-altitude balloons and jets are stepping stones to—well, not much, given that by their nature they’re constrained to the atmosphere. (There have been efforts to marry balloons and rockets—balloon-launched rockets dubbed “rockoons”—but to date they have been nothing more than curiosities.)

Perhaps, though, there’s a silver lining in all this interest in media interest in “space balloons” and the photos they take. It’s based on another inaccuracy in the news reports about these efforts: that they take “pictures of space”. Of course, you don’t need a high-altitude balloon to take pictures of space: just go outside tonight (if it’s clear, of course) and point your camera up. You’ll see plenty of space, without having to leave the ground.

What’s fascinating to people is not that they’re pictures of space, but that they’re pictures of Earth from (near) space. They are a reminder of our place in the universe: a blue orb in an inky void. It offers us a slightly different perspective, a distant relative to the Overview Effect that many astronauts experience when gazing down on the Earth from orbit. If properly described, these images are not low-cost competitors to NASA spacecraft (as some media reports try to claim) but instead appetizers for the “real thing”: actual flights into space, suborbitally or orbitally. If you think those views from weather balloons are great, just imagine the view from 100 kilometers on a suborbital hop or the ever-changing view from low Earth orbit.

The mainstream media is unlikely to take this approach: they’ve shown little interest in this whole phenomenon beyond showing off the images and making some occasional, if unwarranted, digs at NASA in the process. However, as these “space balloon” efforts continue, and become more common, they’re going to become less newsworthy, and the media will move on to other topics. By then, though, those images from cheap digital cameras suspended from balloons may be superseded by other images from cheap digital cameras—this time, taken by people experiencing actual spaceflight.


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