To celebrate the 50th anniversary of two adventurous scouts, Neil
Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, walking on the Moon on July the 20th 1969,
we arranged to launch one of our Cub Scouts into space!
We planned to put the smallest cub we had into a basket below a large
helium balloon. We attached a couple of cameras to record both the cub
as they travelled into space, and the view down from below the basket.
We built the craft and equipped it and, of course, we have provided all
of our cubs with suitable training.
After starting the cameras rolling, and within our approved launch window
from Cambridge Air Traffic Control, surrounded by most of the group from
Beavers to Explorers, plus parents, we launched the cub from our impromptu
facilities at the back of our hut on Flamsteed Road.
After a couple of hours flight the balloon was supposed to burst and
the parachute deployed, slowing the descent to a survivable, if a tad
hairy, speed. We had planned to use tracking signals to locate the remains
of our cub's basket, our cub, the space souvenirs and the cameras. However,
as with many projects, things didn't go exactly according to plan and
our lift-off speed was lower than expected. This extended the flight time,
and distance travelled considerably, which meant that the tracker's battery
expired before we could make use of it and instead of landing somewhere
in Essex as planned, headed off towards the Continent across the English
After travelling into space, here is where our cub landed, 350 miles away at Grange-le-Bocage in France:
There are more details on the lovely people who helped return our Space Cub further down the page
some astronaut training, courtesy of the Nasa Train Like an Astronaut
series of training materials
We made a trip on the train up to Ely to their Science Festival
in Ely Cathedral to see their The Sky's the Limit exhibition
with lots of space and science things going on. As well as all the space
things, there was also 3D printed radio control cars, the Sanger
Institute were extracting and refining DNA and someone was burning
gun cotton on volunteer's hands.
Our cubs assembled under the 7m Moon floating in the nave
Our payload vehicle was made using a recycled polystyrene
box liner and some paracord. This provides some insulation to the batteries
and most of the electronics to keep them warm in space. The side view
camera is a GoClone which is cheap but needs a battery backup so that
it lasts for the whole flight and is held out by some bent coat hangers.
The down view camera and the 'find my landing site' solution is an old
smartphone with some altitude logging and find-my-phone software and a
version of the camera software that doesn't show the video on the screen
so as to save battery. It too needs battery backup to be able to survive
the whole trip - if the battery goes flat there is much less chance of
finding the craft afterwards and recovering the camera footage.
Our payload was one of our cubs, called Douglas, with a
space helmet and a 28th Cambridge green-and-black necker, and some Shrinkles
that the cubs each coloured in and shrank down for the trip into space.
Each one was then returned to its creator with a certificate to show it
had been into space.
Total payload was then weighed. With a smartphone, a GoPro
clone, backup batteries, the collection of Shrinkles cub personalised
payloads and the all important cub passenger comes in at 600g
Testing the launch vehicle in the conservatory
Chosen designs were coloured in and then shrunk to 1/5th of its size for launch
lift for the launch vehicle was provided by a helium filled latex weather
balloon, so called because they are used by meteorologists to lift weather
experiments high up into the upper atmosphere.
We went for a 600g
balloon to lift the 600g payload from Jezsensible on eBay. It is made
from latex rubber and comes sealed in a foil wrapper to ensure as little
damage to it as possible to keep the helium in as long as possible. Jez
even included some gloves to keep the grease and sweat from our hands
transferring onto the balloon and freezing, which would cause it to fail
prematurely. It was about 4-5ft in diameter when inflated so we had to
do that outdoors on a tarpaulin to prevent it from being burst by anything
The day of the launch we confirmed with Air Traffic Control
that we still intended to launch as planned and they confirmed that there
were no planes in our vicinity. The CAA issued
a NOTAM, a Notice to Airmen which warned all airspace users of our
We filled the balloon with 10
litres of helium at 200bar, so that is 2000 litres at ground level,
which is 2m3, 70cu.ft or about 1.5m or 5ft across. Eventually
this balloon bursts, releasing the helium to outer space, which is a waste
of a finite resource and thought needs to be given to whether this waste
is justified. However, it is a tiny amount comapred to the party balloon
wastage, all of which eventually reaches outer space; our balloon is equivalent
to around 250 small happy birthday balloons filled with helium. With 2000
litres, our 600g payload and 600g balloon was intended to reach around
5ms-1 on the ascent, which is what we were after for a 2.5hour
total flight time, ground to ground.
Included with the balloon was a suitable Tyvek parachute
that goes between the balloon and the payload for the descent. The top
of the parachute is attached to the balloon so the parachute is folded
on the way up. After the balloon bursts, the parachute is released and
the bottom has a small disc which spreads the neck of the parachute out
so that it catches the air and slows the descent to around 5ms-1,
much like the ascent.
There are websites
that help predict where the balloon will land. These use the predicted
airspeed and direction of the wind at the variuous altitudes that the balloon
will travel through to try to work out, as accurately as can be done, where
the balloon may come down. However, without a tracking device (we're planning
on using a smartphone with find-my-phone), getting the payload
back has to rely on it being found by someone with a kind heart ...
Our payload has our Cub with his space helmet, the cub souvenirs,
the cameras and batteries, all wrapped up in polystyrene both to keep
the electronics warm in space and to make for a soft landing on whoever
this touches down upon.
Our space capsule with the balloon being filled with helium in the background
The launch was from the back of our scout hut on Flamsteed
Road in Cambridge on Tuesday the 9th of July 2019 at around 7:15pm in
the end. The whole group was assembled for the launch including Beavers,
Cubs, Scouts, Explorers, Young Leaders, Leaders and parents. The downward
facing camera started from a leader's hand, to a handful of cub faces,
to all the cubs, beavers, scouts and leaders and well wishers and then
the roof of the scout hut. Then the Railway Station and Morley Memorial
School and then hopefully much of Cambridge. The cloud was at about four
or five thousand feet so we probably won't get a view of the whole of
East Anglia or even most of the UK as they won't be able to be seen through
the cloud. We all took photos of the launch.
The cubs said goodbye to our plucky space volunteer!
Not everything goes to plan, even on painstakingly planned
operations like this. In the end, when the helium was in and the payload
was assembled, the spacecraft just sat there, not going up and not going
down. Perhaps our helium supply had been 'cut' with nitrogen or normal
air or perhaps some weight calculation had gone horribly worng but there
was not enough lift.
Our space capsule didn't rise quickly enough at launch!
We had to do something! One of the battery packs was jettisonned,
the one backing up the external camera. We left the one backing up the
phone as we needed tracking, altitude logging and time lapse photography
to survive the whole trip if we were to be able to find it again when
Even with this emergency weight jetisonning, launch velocity
was only somewhere between 1ms-1 and 2ms-1 rather
than the 5ms-1 we had planned for. It was slow enough for our
panorama photograph, shown on the right, to capture the balloon twice
(actually 2.5 times), which was pretty cool. The slower climb speed meant
that the flight time was much extended, resulting in a much much further
sideways travel due to the winds than we had planned for. Rough calculations
at this point suggest a landing somewhere in Northern France!
The Recovery Plan
Our leaders' plan was to wait for the smartphone to get
back down close enough to the ground for it to get a mobile reception
and then use Google's
find-my-phone to see where it has landed. We were then going to drive
off and recover the payload and those all important memory cards.
However, as the flight exceeed the available battery life
of the tracking device, we were very muchin the lap of the kindness of
whoever found the capsule, and the weather gods if we were to avoid splashing
down in the English Channel to a watery grave, never to be seen again.
We kept our fingers crossed! ....
In a fantastic set of text messages from the people who
found our Space Cub, using the Space Cub's mobile phone, we were told
that he had made it to Grange-le-Bocage
southeast of Paris, some 350 miles away!
The kind people found it on a farm outside the village and
went to the trouble of charging up the phone, checking out this webpage
and replying to us to let us know of his safe arrival and that he hadn't
landed in the Channel.
They then arranged for the capsule to be returned to us
by post, which was very kind of them. Before all of this, however, he
was given a Hero's Welcome tour of their village (see the video below).
Unpacking the data
The three heroines in France who found and returned our
Space Cub to us packaged him up carefully with everything that survived
and sent him back to us. It turned out that we had lost the sideways GoPro
camera somewhere along the way but the altitude tracking still logged
the route. At least until it went so high that the -60°C temperatures
of Space made the phone power down.
In total our Space Cub travelled around 350 miles from the
launch site at our hut in Cambridge. After release the capsule climbed
steadily, albeit rather slowly. After crossing Braintree,
when we lost contact with it directly, and passing through some warmer
and colder air which affected the altimeter sensor, it continued in a
southeasterly direction, leaving the Essex coast over Foulness
Island and then briefly crossing Kent at Ramsgate
to reach a maximum height at this point of 7112m, 23,300ft or about 4.5miles
up. However, as this was by now after 10pm the sun set on our intrepid
Nightfall had the unfortunate effect of causing the balloon
to deflate a little, reducing the lift it produced until it was no longer
enough to raise the balloon. The capsule therefore slowly descended as
it continued southeast, crossing the channel at a respectable 5000m, 16,500ft
or about 3 miles up directly over Calais.
Slowly the capsule descended, lower and lower until, around 4am it touched
down lightly just south of Amiens near a village called Epagny.
The balloon was still aloft but there wasn't enough lift to get it off
the ground. Perhaps at this point the sideways GoPro camera became stuck
on a tree, a fence, a bush or a wire.
At 06:52am the sun came up and the gas in the balloon started
to warm up. If it had been caught by the GoPro camera catching on something
then the capsule must have eventually have torn itself free, possibly
leaving the GoPro behind. This looks likely because after lift-off it
rose quickly into the air as if it had been held down for a bit. Climbing
all the time, this time in the full sun, the capsule went up and up.
At 18,000m, about 60,000ft, the temperature of space reaches
about -60° Centigrade as the capsule entered the Tropopause
at the top of the Troposphere
at a little after 11am on the second day of the flight. Here the batteries
in the phone and even the special backup battery pack could not continue
to generate enough current in the extreme cold to keep the altimeter running
and the phone powered down. The maximum recorded (but unlikely to be the
maximum it reached) was 18,116m, around 60,000 feet and marks the point
where the capsule entered the Stratosphere.
Following the trajectory and given the specs of the latex balloon we used
we estimate that the burst was another 10km, 6 miles, higher at just over
28,000m, about 92,000ft or about 17.5 miles up, somewhere over the town
Interestingly, given the curvature of the Earth, you can just about
see Cambridge from 28,000m above Troyes.
Around a quarter to one, BST, we calculate, on Wednesday the 10th, 15½ hours after launch, the helium filled latex balloon burst at just over 28,000m and the descent was rapid under the
small but functional parachute. Down came the capsule, probably in only around 1¼ hours so about 2pm, and landed in a
field on the south eastern outskirts of the village of Grange
It would appear that the capsule landed in some ripening
wheat and was therefore not discovered until the Sunday the 3rd of August, some four and a half weeks later when the combine harvester came
out for the harvest. His plucky spirit must have kept him going during his isolation. Luckily the eagle-eyed farmer spotted him before
he was eaten by the enormous cutting blades that reap the corn and handed
to the three French heroines who returned him to us.
The three who found the Space Cub gave him a hero's welcome
and a tour of their village. He visited their school and looked around
their beautiful church before wrapping up tight for the journey back to
Cambridge in the post.
Not easy to spot in a corn field
He looks a little frightened
All of the shrinkles survived the trip!
Our three French heroines!
A video from the footage shot by our Cub in Space's french recovery team, Les Trois Héroïnes
It turns out that the finder had been a scout when she was
younger; a great Scout carries on doing good deeds for others their whole