A blog post by Tom Mansfield
Well, that was epic. It’s now two days after the flight of Spayce McSpaceFace and I’m still feeling my heart pumping adrenalin! I’m delighted to be able to say that we had a completely successful flight, launching from Andover just inside our permitted time, and landing near West Horsley – some 44 miles away as the crow flies, and about twenty miles east of where we expected.
The onboard cameras took photos for the first half of the voyage, before the cold air of the upper atmosphere caused their batteries to pack up. And we had a real adventure chasing our spaceship across southern England from twenty-plus kilometres beneath its flight path!
Click the image above to watch the replay
The launch team – five of us – met outside Chapel Arts Studios at 9.30 on the morning of Tuesday 8th September. Our first job was to get everything over to the launch site at the Memorial Garden which was a little trickier than we expected. It turns out a 30 litre helium canister weighs…quite a lot, even when you’re only moving it 200 meters! We started to get everything set up: the good ship Spayce McSpaceFace, the helium canister, and laying out the weather balloon.
I started jogging anxiously around the site, going between the launch pad and my laptop, frantically checking and rechecking weather reports and flight predictions. We only had a limited window in which we were allowed to launch – between 11.05 and 11.45am – and the prediction software was showing us looking likely to land on the edge of Farnborough Airfield if we left it too late.
There were a couple of hairy moments while we prepared for launch: first, we had some trouble opening up the helium canister, and then, just as we were ready to launch, I realised that I’d asked Susan to attach the wrong line to the parachute, so that we’d have ended up with the parachute and the spacecraft above the weather balloon that was supposed to be lifting it up into space (this feels like the appropriate time for me to profoundly apologise to everyone in and around the Memorial Garden, and watching on Facebook and Instagram, who had to put up with my loud swearing at this point…sorry folks). But eventually we had everything tied up properly, the balloon full of helium and straining to go. Susan began her countdown over the PA and then it was up and away! We watched the balloon rise and within a couple of minutes it had disappeared into the low grey clouds above Andover. A look at the church clock showed that we’d made it with just three minutes to spare.
So then it was time to quickly pack up the launch site and get into our chase car! Samuel, our resident astrophysicist and driver for the day, Rebecca the filmmaker and I piled into the vehicle and I checked the GPS. So then we had our next bit of bad news – the two GPS units on board Spayce McSpaceFace had both stopped transmitting just moments after the launch. This could mean one of two things – either they’d stopped working completely and there was no way we’d be able to find the spaceship when it landed, or they just lost connection with the satellite and we’d pick up the signal again when it came back down. I figured, after all this time trying to get the launch together, it was better to hope for the best, so off we went to the village of Church Crookham, about 45 minutes’ drive from Andover, which was roughly where the prediction software said the balloon would land.
We got there about 1pm, about an hour and twenty minutes since launch. We’d run a bunch of predictions for the flight, and most of them had suggested the balloon would be up for quite a bit longer than this (I’ll do another blog later on flight predictions and kit by the way!). But if we were lucky, my phone would ping soon and we’d know that Spayce McSpaceFace was back on earth.
But no. We ended up hanging around in the local Co-Op car park for a bit, swinging our heels until, essentially, we got bored and thought we had a drive around. A few minutes later, we found ourselves in the absolutely delightful village of Ewshot. We parked up opposite the church for a while until a passing postman mentioned there was a park just down the hill. So we headed there, and we waited some more.
By now it was nearly two o’clock. We’d launched at 11.42, and we’d last heard from the GPS system on board our ship at 11.43. Not going to lie, it felt like it was nearly time to give up.
We waited some more. A plane flew overhead, probably on final approach to Farnham airfield. This was good news, because it meant we probably hadn’t landed our weather balloon right in the middle of the airfield. A couple of military helicopters flew over. No balloon underneath. I got my binoculars out and scanned the sky, somewhat pointlessly. There was a distinct lack of parachutes, balloons, or spacecraft of any kind. It was, pretty much, time to give up.
This is where things got cinematic.
I’d been texting with my partner back in London, keeping her up to speed on what had been going on through the morning. At 2.11pm, I tried to give her a ring and couldn’t get through. I left her a voicemail telling her it was time to quit and I’d be home soonish.
Ten seconds after I hung up, my phone pinged. The GPS app on my phone notified me that the GPS units on board Spayce McSpaceFace had ‘powered on’ – meaning, they’d connected to the satellites at last. They were at an altitude of two hundred meters, so they’d be landing in a few moments. And it turned out that the ship was just south of the village of West Horsley in Surrey, 25.96km (16.13 miles) away from the park we were standing in.
So we legged it to the car. Samuel drove like a hero, and half an hour later we were in the beautifully wooded Surrey hills, with me in the back calling out turns like a cut-rate rally navigator. It took a few wrong turns, but eventually we parked up outside a couple of houses in the woods. It looked like the landing site was a hundred meters or so up the road, behind a house.
We knocked on the door and explained to the homeowners that we were looking for our lost spaceship. They were extremely polite and gave no suggestion that we were completely insane. Instead, they showed us round the back of their house and right there, in a paddock surrounded by three beautiful horses, was the red flash of the parachute and, at the other end of the line, an entirely intact Spayce McSpaceFace.
The horses seemed very relaxed about the whole thing, but I was very very excited indeed! We extricated the spaceship from the paddock (not a sentence I ever thought I’d write) and walked it back to the car. It seemed…completely fine. The radar reflector had lost some of its high-tech tin foil, revealing the Moretti beer box design underneath, but apart from that, you wouldn’t have thought that this tiny polystyrene box had been in the upper atmosphere just an hour or so beforehand.
I sat on a little grass verge and unwrapped the box. It was like an insane and wonderful Christmas present. Inside, the signatures of everyone who’d worked on the project, the CAS team, the Andover Young Carers, the Picket Twenty Fillies, our friends and family. And beneath that, two cameras – one pointed at the ground, one horizontally looking out of the spaceship. The downward-facing camera’s battery was completely exhausted, but the horizontal camera powered on as I hit the button. I pressed play.
On the tiny camera screen, you could see mostly black. The top three-quarters of the screen were almost complete darkness, and then a blue-white curved object at the bottom. Every few seconds a massive white hemisphere sped across the screen. The tiny camera I held in my hand had been looking at the very edge of the Earth’s atmosphere, the clouds far far beneath it, the Sun pushing through with glorious brightness. We’d done it.
As Samuel drove us back to Andover, I powered up the laptop and downloaded the footage. On the HD screen, the imagery was even more incredible. I felt this sense of complete elation. It took a year to get us to this point, and this was our fifth attempt to get our spaceship off the ground. But this tiny group of people, with no previous training, had managed to launch a spacecraft from the middle of Andover right up to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere. (At home later, I ran some calculations based on the temperature and pressure sensors on board, and they showed an estimated maximum altitude of over 37,000 meters – nearly twice as high as we’d hoped).
When we started this project, we did it with the idea that ‘There’s a Bigger Picture Out There’. And for me, this whole experience has been about realising what people can achieve together, if we dream big enough and find the right people to help us. When I first pitched the idea, I could never have dreamt that we’d be launching our spaceship during the year of the coronavirus. Many of us have basically spent months locked indoors, unable to see family and friends, unable to imagine a world beyond the four walls around us. And so, to see that stratospheric footage from our tiny spaceship felt almost impossibly moving. More than that – it felt like freedom.
Andover Space Programme
MISSION LOG BOOK
Air pressure at ground level: 1019 hPa
Air pressure at max altitude: 27 hPa
Temperature at ground level: 18 degrees Celsius
Temperature at max altitude: -28.4 degrees Celsius
Estimated max altitude: 37,390 meters
All images are protected by copyright and cannot be used without the permission of Upstart Theatre and Chapel Arts Studios.