March 2016 – We recreated the NASA Apollo Command Module re-entry profile by dropping a 1:12 scale replica from the stratosphere, in collaboration with Adam Savage’s Tested media company. To gain the needed altitude, the capsule was carried to more than 70,000 ft on a high altitude balloon. It was then autonomously cut down, triggered by GPS altitude telemetry. It commenced free falling for several minutes and approached descent speeds of 80 mph. As with Apollo, our capsule was equipped with 3 main parachutes which were deployed at 24,000 ft, allowing a safe return to Earth. This project took custom hardware and software, and multiple flights, one of which was over the California Central Valley. More details on the flight and build was presented at the Tested Live Show at the Castro Theater in San Francisco on Saturday, October 29, 2016.
To accomplish this mission, we first built the Balloon Integrated Re-programmable Computer, also known as the BRIC. The BRIC is an Arduino based set of custom hardware and software which makes up our flight management computer. It uses GPS and a backup barometer to trigger the cut-down mechanism and parachute deployment. The parachutes are servo controlled spring deployed UAV recovery parachutes, in this case the Mars MINI. The cut-down mechanism was based on a nichrome wire which is heated to melt through the nylon rope. It has a radio transmitter to communicate mission telemetry and location to a mobile ground station. Active heating control keeps batteries and electronics warm without allowing them to overheat. We also designed a custom structure which we 3D printed (with thanks to Stratasys) to house the parachutes and the BRIC inside the capsule.
The second goal of the mission was the capture video of the San Francisco Bay Area from the stratosphere at night, viewing the city lights below. This used a Sony A7S camera along with a set up similar to our San Francisco mission. Thanks to honorary NCL member Adrien Perkins for building our ground station, aiding in launch and logistics, and for his UAV filming during launch. Thanks to the team at Tested, especially Frank Ippolito who built the replica capsule, Adam Savage who painted the capsule and gave it the proper Apollo aesthetic, Norman Chan who came out on the day of the flight and helped in the search with his UAV, and of course Kishore Hari who orchestrated the whole thing and made the project and live show possible.