Fires in the Mind

A launch worth watching

Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.

Shared curiosity, persistence, and the joy of learning shine out like a spotlight from “Homemade Spacecraft,” a 7-minute video by Luke Geissbuhler about his eight-month scientific adventure with his elementary-school-age son.

The film shows the climactic day of their mission: “to attach a HD video camera to a weather balloon and send it into the upper stratosphere to film the blackness beyond our Earth.”

We see the boy and his dad test out their return parachute, and tuck their iPhone and the boy’s “reward if returned” note into a jerry-rigged lightweight orange insulated “space capsule” (smaller than a shoebox). Then they launch their helium-filled balloon, with camera, on its merry way. Their text explains what the journey entails:

Eventually, the balloon will grow from lack of atmospheric pressure, burst, and begin to fall. It would have to survive 100 mph winds, temperatures of 60 degrees below zero, speeds of over 150 mph, and the high risk of a water landing. To retrieve the craft, it would need to deploy a parachute, descend through the clouds, and transmit a GPS signal to a cell phone tower [from an included on the launch]. Then we have to find it.

“Needless to say, there are a lot of variables to overcome,” this dad notes about their project. “Be responsible is the biggest.” They built their craft to meet FAA regulations for weather balloon payload, and launched it far from city air space. Their R&D stage took seven months, for both scientific and safety reasons:

The lighter it is, the faster it will rise and the less helium you have to put into it and so the more it can expand into the oversized balloon, hence the higher it will go. It also has to be able to shred in a jet engine, which isn’t easy. There are density requirements and you can’t use any cable or tie that won’t break with 50lbs of weight among other things.

At the climax of all that work, we see the magic of this balloon ascend into space, hear the whoosh of wind currents, gaze at the awe-inspiring curve of Earth through its camera’s lens.

I can’t help but think of all the kids who would be itching to do science, if science learning could only look like this. An interested adult, a compelling idea to explore, and then hours of meticulous effort together . . . that’s what lights fires in the mind, and keeps them burning years later.

Do you have stories like this to share, from the wide world of learning outside school walls? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is among the best examples I receive.


2 Responses to “A launch worth watching”

  1. Gina says:

    This experiment was absolutely amazing! I can’t wait to share it with my fellow teachers.
    The sky was definitely not the limit for this young man and his dad!

  2. Rich says:

    Mr. Geissbuhler:

    I recently encountered your video on the “Fires of the Mind” site, and I found it to be an inspiration. I am a first year teacher in the Detroit Metro area, working with urban middle and high school students. I am also a career changer – I spent the past 19 years of my life working as a licensed Civil Engineer. As a part of the earth science curriculum I work with, my classes typically spend about 6 to 8 weeks working on space and related topics (star and planet formation, what is solar wind, northern lights, etc.). I begin the unit on space in late April. From my colleagues, one of the greatest challenges I will face is getting my students motivated. The problem, as they express it, is that there is a lack of big project activities that really helps in bringing out the interest of the students. They typically view space as something that isn’t important to their everyday lives, and as something that they will never get to experience or have anything to do with beyond looking at Hubble pictures. Most of the teachers who have worked with this in the past say that they just don’t enjoy teaching at this time. Spring is happening but everybody feels trapped inside, on a subject that isn’t ‘fun’, and teachers and students are starting to burn out from the year.

    It was strongly recommended to try to shorten up the subject as much as possible, to just get through it, then offer the final part of the school year as an almost elective time, coving student guided topics of Oceanography, Marine/Great Lakes Ecology or Global Warming – depending on student interest.

    But, I enjoy the topic. I don’t want to shorten it up.

    So, I got to thinking – the school I work at had been trying to introduce more concepts of engineering, and my students haven’t had the opportunity for a field trip since the early fall when they went fossil hunting in a local limestone quarry. So, what can I do that would be space related? Then I came across your video and thought that this would be a great school project. I discussed this with my fellow teachers as well as the school principal, and everybody thinks this could be a great project. As such, I am hoping you might be able to help me with some basic knowledge:

    FAA regulations are easy to find (the FAA keeps them up on their web site). Did you find any other rules or regulations that may be factors?

    What, precisely, was your goal? This isn’t clear from the description on Fires of the Mind, nor on your Brooklyn Space Program web site – beyond the basic “can we get pictures from space?” I am thinking I would like to get some scientific

    What were all the considerations that you take account of for the event – wind, landing (and finding the package), communications, temperature, FAA regulations, etc. As an inquiry based science project, the students will obviously need to spend a lot of time researching this – but from a teachers perspective, it is nice to have it handy to make sure that there isn’t something that we are forgetting.

    Where did you purchase your materials? A quick google search comes up with many different suppliers for balloons and various packages to include (I am thinking altimeter in particular, as well as camera and some sort of GPS unit – you used an iPhone I take it). It is always good to have recommendations for particular products and suppliers.

    Anything else that you think I should know. Obviously, I am putting this as an idea together rather quickly, and assuming the students show interest I will have to likely act quickly to make it happen in a meaningful way for student learning.

    Any assistance you can give me will be appreciated. Thank you.

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