Josh Ward was a self-proclaimed “geek” with a dream of launching a payload into space.
Sunday, after a lot of hard work and the generosity of friends and strangers, he saw that dream take flight.
He and his volunteer crew attached a styrene foam box fitted with two GoPro cameras and a GPS device to a weather balloon and watched it disappear into the November sky over Gatesville.
He traced the odd-looking package with his smartphone until it ascended beyond the reach of civilian GPS devices and into “near space,” more than 20 miles up.
Then he and his crew raced east to Limestone County to begin the hunt for the device and recover more than two hours of out-of-this-world footage.
Ward, a Waco native who works in information technology at Baylor University’s business school, wanted to see if he could use off-the-shelf consumer technology to explore the stratosphere and capture some cool pictures of Earth and sky.
“Everybody asks why,” he said. “My only answer is, why not?”
He read blogs from other amateur near-space explorers and did his own research. He tested his equipment in the freezer to prepare for the airless region of near space, where temperatures sink to 40 degrees below zero.
He used the online site Kickstarter to gather some $1,800 in donations for the launch, including the cost of the small high-definition video cameras.
“I’d been talking about the project a couple of months, and some of my friends said, ‘Dude, I’d throw something into that,’ ” he said. “What was amazing is that of the initial $1,000, $350 came from complete strangers on Kickstarter who were just actively seeking projects to back. . . . I wanted to be a good steward of the money, so I wanted to use legitimate components and make sure we got it back.”
Ward kept his backers apprised of his progress through his blog, www.starduster.info. He built a box from styrene foam and covered it with fluorescent orange duct tape for visibility, taught himself to solder parts and ordered a weather balloon that was designed to pop at a certain altitude and drift down safely.
“It’s low-tech and high-tech at the same time,” he said of the project.
He used online tools such as Google Earth to estimate the path of the device and where it would land. Based on upper-atmosphere wind speeds, he projected that the landing spot would be around Coolidge, about 35 miles northeast of Waco.
At 60,000 feet up, the GPS device stopped sending signals, and Ward had to trust that his calculations were right. He and his friends waited anxiously on the ground in Coolidge. Finally, they got a signal from the device and tracked it to a location 11 miles away, in a rural backyard near Lake Richland Chambers.
“Part of it was diligence, and part of it was sheer luck that it landed in a mowed pasture, and that the guy was really nice and offered us a Coke as we were leaving.”
Ward said he plans to do another launch in the future. In the meantime, he said he plans to speak to some school groups that supported the launch, hoping to inspire young people to chase after their dreams.
“The key was just getting started,” he said.