Summer 2007 Issue

Up in the Air

The View from the Edge of Space

By Bill Brown, WB8ELK

Twenty years ago, I watched a video of Joe Kittinger parachuting out of a Project Man-High research balloon from 103,000 feet above the Earth. The view was incredible. You could see the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space. The ride he took back to the ground was just plain amazing, and he was falling so fast he nearly broke the sound barrier.

This inspired in me the strong desire to visit the edge of space (also called Near Space), and it dawned on me that there had to be a lower cost and much safer way of experiencing this. At the time I was very active with Amateur Television, so I figured I could send a live TV camera to the very edge of space and back again using a weather balloon. From 100,000-plus feet, I could see what Joe Kittinger had seen, but I could do this by watching the view on my TV set in the comfort of my ham shack.

My first flight was on August 15, 1987 from Findlay, Ohio and carried a 1-watt ATV transmitter and a 50-milliwatt 2-meter FM transmitter. At peak altitude the low-power ATV and 2-meter signals were copied beautifully in Chicago, some 250 miles away. As those who have ever tried mountaintopping can attest, antenna height is everything!

You can see 400 miles in all directions from a balloon at 100,000 feet. The first time I sent a film camera up on a balloon, I anxiously took the film to be developed. When I went to get my processed film from the photo shop, the fellow who worked there asked me, “How’d you take these photos; are you an astronaut?” With a view like this, just imagine what kind of coverage you can get with a balloon-borne VHF or UHF repeater. Contacts between hams over 700 miles apart have been made this way, often using nothing more than HTs on the ground. How’s that for a wide-coverage repeater? Just think of the emergency communications possibilities; one balloon payload can cover an entire Katrina-size disaster area.


Since 1987 I’ve flown over 200 balloons from 19 states. In addition, quite a number of balloon groups from across the country have popped up over the years. Called ARHAB (Amateur Radio High Altitude Ballooning), this is a great way to put some new excitement into amateur radio and combine the best elements of specialized digital and video modes (APRS, CW, PSK31, RTTY, and ATV), homebrewing (build your very own satellite), ground and mobile tracking station design, and of course, the ultimate in foxhunting challenges. It’s an exciting way to attract newcomers into ham radio, particularly among the young people, where the Internet, webcams, and cell-phone text messaging compete with amateur radio. Let them know that they can build, track, and recover their very own satellite and this definitely captures their interest. Many of the young engineering students who participated in the local university’s BalloonSat course got their amateur radio licenses strictly for the balloon flights. Once they saw how exciting ham radio can be, they went on to become active members of our local radio club.

Photo A. A typical BalloonSat flight system. (Photos courtesy of the author)

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