“Holga Stratosphere” by Dirk Fletcher

View of Earth from the Stratosphere with Holga plactic 'toy' camera space hot air balloon

The Earth as photographed from the stratosphere with a Holga by Dirk Fletcher and students

This project and the image specifically was the combined efforts of a small Modern Alternative Practices class that I teach in the summers at Harrington College of Design, where I am the Chairman of the Photography Programs. The class began with the idea of sending something up to the stratosphere to photograph the earth, but the idea of using a Holga came from a student once the class was underway.

After studying several of my favorite photographers and early technical pioneers, like O. Winston Link and Ralph Morris, the class got super excited to somehow follow in their footsteps. It was a discussion of how Ralph Morris photographed an early Space Shuttle launch that really got the class fired up. During the designing process, someone literally said, ‘We need to think like the shuttle guy.’’

The largest challenge we had to overcome was how to trip the cameras twenty miles above the planet. After several designs, we came up with the idea of using a power door lock actuator to compress a cable release and subsequently fire the camera. We ended up with a rig that held two cable releases and when we hit the power door lock actuator with fifteen volts, it squeezed two pieces of wood together, compressing the two cable releases.

The final payload carried four Holgas and two tripping mechanisms. Each tripping mechanism fired two cameras at the same time while pointing out towards opposite sides of our foam cooler. The cooler was actually a repurposed heavy-duty Omaha Steaks cooler that an adjunct brought in after his feast. With two tripping mechanisms, well over a dozen AA batteries, four GoPros, two Calumet Pro Series timers (with custom PC boards to handle the higher voltage), a half dozen hand warmers (at 105,000 feet, it got as low as -20˚ F outside the enclosure on our test launch), the payload was filled to the gills and ready to launch.

The payload took one hour and fifty-three minutes (and forty-nine seconds) to reach its highest altitude before the balloon popped and began its return to earth on a parachute. The flight down took a mere twenty minutes and fifty-nine seconds from balloon pop to touchdown in a cornfield forty-five miles from our launch location. Using a GyroBowl as a template, I built a gimbal for our Spot II satellite GPS unit to keep it upright and facing the sky throughout the flight and, most importantly, the landing. If the payload landed upside-down or on its side (as it did in our case) we wouldn’t get the all-critical last ping to let us know where it ended up. The unit pings every five minutes so once we saw two pings from the same location on the iPad we knew it had touched down.

If you are in the Chicago area, please come to our follow-up event at the college, ‘Find Your Space’, on Thursday October 10th. See the payload and all the early iterations, view several videos and watch the entire process from start to finish. The first one hundred attendees will leave with a special edition print of the image. The launch overview video can be found on my blog: dirkfletcher.blogspot.com, and general information about the program can be found on the colleges website at harrington.edu. – Dirk Fletcher

This image will be available as a special edition print at Harrington College of Design in Chicago on Thursday, October 10th. You can find more details on the event here. Follow Fletcher on Facebook, Tumblr and at his blog, where you can also find more information and a video on the project. His portfolio can be found at his website, www.dirkfletcher.com.