Into the wild blue yonder
Three young men, friends since their middle school years in Socorro and now scattered across the country, pooled their Science Olympiad experience and mathematical skills over the holiday to successfully launch a makeshift capsule into the stratosphere.
Danny Bowman, Jeff Hankins and Paul Norman, all in their mid-20s, have made it a point to get together over holiday breaks to hike in the mountains, build bonfires — or even, on occasion, to conduct a science experiment just for the fun of it.
Such was the case when, on Christmas Eve 2011, they sent a makeshift craft fashioned from a small Styrofoam ice chest and outfitted with a satellite-tracking device and a Canon digital camera, into the frigid skies over the Bowman family home in Lemitar.
It was born aloft by a latex balloon filled with helium and attached to the crude craft, which was partly lined with heat packets to keep the camera warm at minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit, the average temperature at 90,000 feet in the air.
A plastic ring kept the parachute strings from tangling, and the camera lens was affixed to a small hole that was cut into the side of the ice chest.
Lift was calculated as the weight of the craft plus one pound.
Paul and Jeff had performed the same basic experiment a year ago, but the parachute, fashioned from tarp fabric belonging to Paul’s mother, Mary Norman, failed to do its job.
Here’s where Norman’s years of Science Olympiad parachute-making skills paid off: The ripstop nylon chute, fully five feet in diameter, successfully supported a payload that soared in excess of 90,000 feet (about 27 kilometers) before landing in the San Mateo Mountains of southwestern Socorro County, near Hold Up and San Mateo canyons.
The proof: A series of over 2,000 digital photos successfully stored in the camera’s memory card with its modest 2GB capacity, and a single data point recorded when the craft landed.
After a traditional Mission Control countdown, the three men watched their makeshift spacecraft soar over Strawberry Peak and head for the San Mateos, a distance of about 90 miles as the crow flies.
“This time, we were lucky in terms of wind,” said Norman.
There was no jet stream over Socorro that day, and the wind was from the north, instead of from the southwest, as was the case with last year’s launch.
Let’s also give credit to Julia Stanfield, Norman’s girlfriend, who constructed the parachute based on his design. Stanfield is a Nebraska native who teaches chemistry in the Twin Cities.
For their parts, Bowman, the only married member of the trio, works as a professional geologist in Boston. His wife, Christine, served as launch photographer.
Hankins teaches one-week courses in environmental outdoor education — getting to practice what he preaches — in Maine.
Norman is in the aerospace engineering Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota.
And the launch is just half of the story.
Paul and Jeff set off on Dec. 30 on a three-day hike to retrieve the craft and camera. The satellite tracker had stopped sending signals, so they knew that wherever the craft landed, it wasn’t moving.
Using a map and calculating coordinates, the men set off into the mountains on day one, found the craft on the second day, and then hiked out on the third day, ascending 8,000 feet, but warmed by reflected sunlight off the snowpack.
“It was about 50 degrees, so by the last day, we were in shirtsleeves,” Norman said.
He was the last of the trio to leave Socorro after the holiday weekends, giving him time to prepare a collage for his mom of his four favorite photos.
They make for an impressive collection, and even an unskilled navigator could make out the outlines of the Rio Puerco and the Rio Grande, and where U.S. 60 cuts across the landscape.
Because the Styrofoam chest swung around on its journey, with the camera programmed to take a photo every 10 seconds, the collected montage provides a 360-degree perspective, although not quite panoramic.
“It’s like a movie,” Mary Norman said, reminiscent of the Pixar film, “Up.”
Any engineer worth his or her sodium chloride always provides for backup support; in this case, a cell phone was a stowaway aboard the craft.
And, as anyone who travels in Socorro County knows, once in the Magdalena area, cell phone service is tricky at best.
Engineering managers, take note: Including the camera, purchased used online, and 20 yards of ripstop nylon, the total amount invested in the project was around $200, Norman estimated.
“You can do it for less than a hundred dollars with a smart phone,” he added.
The engineer-in-the-making said that 20 years ago, the best method for tracking a man-made object was radio telemetry, which requires an unobstructed line of sight.
A local scientist suggested that the young men use Doppler radar to track the next phase of their project during the 2012 holiday season.
“Now, that would be something!” Norman said.