Taking a balloon up into the lower stratosphere may seem crazy, but to Cameron M. Smith it’s an opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream. The 45-year-old Portland State University anthropologist couldn’t join NASA’s aviation program because of his poor eyesight. Lacking the funds to buy a ticket on a private space flight, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
At 50,000 feet up, death is imminent, so the first thing to do was build a suit. Smith bought some of the parts off the Internet: a diver’s dry suit, a gauge that measures internal air pressure, and an aquarium pump to circulate cooling fluid. Ace Hardware had other bits like nylon straps, wire, and a slew of PVC fittings and valves. It’s topped off with an authentic 1980s-era soviet fighter helmet.
Once the proof-of-concept suit is complete, Smith will test his rig in a hypobaric chamber, and if all goes well it will be rebuilt with sturdier elements. Then he’ll craft a nylon balloon, get a balloon pilot’s license, and clear his route with authorities. “If they could do this in the 1930s with rubberized canvas and pigskin gloves, surely I can do it now with the technology available,” Smith says. “This is not so crazy. This is not so wild.” Sure. We’ll just stay on the ground and watch from here, thanks.
I am building a pressure suit in my apartment so that I can fly to fifty thousand feet in a balloon. As a child of the 1970s Space Age, I was sure that I would some day walk on Mars. Poor eyesight blocked me from the Astronaut Corps, but I am not quitting. I will build and fly my airship as far from the surface of the Earth as I can, and experience a view of the Earth from near-space conditions, where only my pressure suit will keep me alive. From programming an old Mac, to running a flight simulation, to building each valve and hose connection, I mean to do this with my own mind and resources, rather than relying on the government to get me there. The colonization of space is beginning now, and I mean to be a part of it, if only by showing that the technologies involved are not the exclusive province of NASA, but can be explored by a full-time archaeologist and part-time astronaut.
In the 1930s, going to high altitude was done by balloon. Very interestingly, before World War II, it was not of strategic interest, they didn’t think there could be anything done up there. The military didn’t put money into it, so the pressure suits made in the 1930s were not military sponsored. They were in fact very low budget projects. Some were totally private, one man was a Spanish Air Force pilot but he did it entirely on his own. Wiley Post’s suit was rubberized canvas with pigskin gloves. His shoes had simple laces working as the pressure restraint. I thought, if these guys could do that in the 1930s with their technology I could do it today with a diving suit, Russian helmet, and so on. After studying those guys I had the confidence to say I could go ahead and build a suit.
What is the value in getting to the edge of space? Is the point to get to the edge and look out, or to look back at our planet?
I want to look out. It is an almost tangible frustration for me that I can get that close and not go further. I want to go to the moon. I want to go to Mars. I want to explore out beyond. If you define space at about forty-five miles up from Earth, that is about most people’s commute. If we just turned the axis of our commute up and got to that point; there is a whole universe out there! There is a universe of stuff to explore! That boggles my mind. It is right up there. If we can just get up there a little bit, it’s like going through a door. Wow!
source: Dr. Cameron M. Smith