You might have thought Josh Ward’s do-it-yourself obsession reached its apex two years ago when he rigged up a camera to a balloon and launched it into near space.
Turns out, that was just the warm-up.
On Saturday morning, the Waco technology enthusiast launched “Starduster II,” a refined version of the original experiment, this time collecting better data and photos with the help of a small army of shortwave radio operators. And Ward said he is already thinking about the next launch.
Ward and his friends launched the balloon rig from Comanche, about 100 miles west of Waco. From there, it traveled 99,000 feet into the freezing stratosphere, where it burst as planned. The radio and camera apparatus parachuted down to a field near Kosse, where teams recovered the payload and hours of GoPro video.
Compared to the shaky footage from the first Starduster project in November 2014, this video is sharp and steady, thanks to some tweaks to the design of the payload. Ward also collaborated with the Baylor Amateur Radio Club to monitor and record real-time data on altitude, position, speed temperature and air pressure. He plans to post photos and video this week at www.starduster.info.
So why would a 37-year-old Baylor University tech staffer spend hours on DIY space exploration — then do it again? To show it could be done, Ward said.
“With off-the-shelf parts we demonstrated a lot of science that we learned in middle school,” Ward said. “In fact, if I had done this in middle school, I would have actually paid attention. . . . For me, there was no part of this process I didn’t enjoy. I just had to get up and do it.”
Ward is hoping to inspire young people and others to think of aerospace as something within their reach, even if they happen not to be Elon Musk. He funded the entire enterprise with less than $1,800, which he raised from 50 donors on Kickstarter.
Ward spoke to school classes and civic clubs after the first launch and hopes to do more educational outreach.
“If 10 kids Google a word I’ve said, or go to Wikipedia because of something I’ve said, I’ve done my job,” he said. Ward and radio club leaders said they plan to share their data and plans with anyone who is interested.
A newspaper story about Ward’s first launch caught the attention of the Baylor Amateur Radio Club. Club leaders were interested in partnering with him on an experiment using shortwave radio to track and collect data from objects in near space.
Club members designed the instrument package using small parts they ordered online, and they used social media to recruit other shortwave enthusiasts to help track the launch. Licensed operators as far away as Dallas drove to Comanche and other points along the route, and they used shortwave to receive “packages” of data from the payload that they then posted on the internet.
85 degrees below
The balloon encountered temperatures of 85 degrees below zero and winds up to 175 miles per hour as it ascended to the east. Volunteers used the radio data to find the payload.
In all, about 60 people helped, many of whom Ward and the radio club had never met.
“I was blown away by how many people showed up,” Ward said.
Ward said he is hoping to do another launch in the spring, possibly using the help of Baylor engineering students, who have shown an interest in designing a lighter, more compact payload than Starduster II, which weighed about 6 pounds.
Jacob Boline, the radio club’s president, said he would like to improve the tracking ability for the next launch and even add “slow scan TV,” which sends real-time video to ground users using encoded data.
Boline, a senior electrical engineering major who is planning to work at L-3 Communications after graduation, said he hopes to use the hands-on knowledge he gained from his experiment in his future work.
Boline said that even in an internet age, shortwave radio remains fun and useful.
“I think it’s cool that I can throw an antenna in my backyard and talk to someone from Belgium,” he said. “When you have things like this, it comes in really handy, because at 100,000 feet you can’t get cellphone service.”
Ward said he is lucky to have a wife, Liz, who is not only tolerant but supportive of his many hobbies, which also include flying planes, baking, leatherwork and running.
“All my recovered payload is accumulating in my home office, much to my wife’s chagrin,” he said. “But they’re kind of like a trophy.”