The translucent ping-pong ball, equipped with GPS unit, tiny camera, and an interface to enable communication with the ground, had already travelled more than 5,300 miles, from Southampton, England, to California. Now, it was ready for a ride to the upper reaches of the stratosphere, where it would be reborn as a PongSat.
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Along with several hundred others, it sat nested in a “high rack”—a spindly construction bristling with cameras, antennas, Styrofoam boxes, blue fabric fins, and a parachute. On a frigid Saturday before dawn in April 2013, five high racks, holding a total of nearly 2,000 PongSats, rested in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Soon, a helium-filled balloon would carry each rack 100,000 feet into the stratosphere.
Through the PongSat (short for Ping-Pong satellite) program, anyone anywhere can create a scientific experiment, as long as it fits inside a Ping-Pong ball, that will be flown to the stratosphere, retrieved, and returned—free of charge—along with flight information, a flight video, and a certificate of participation. Some contain tiny micro-processors, cosmic-ray counters, or telemetry systems. Others come from schoolchildren: boxes of PongSats with lists of their contents—M&Ms, crayons, a daisy. Some include a scientific hypothesis in the form of a question: “Popcorn kernels (Will they pop?)”; “Mini-marshmallow (Will it expand?).”
Some programs charge over $200,000 for scientists to conduct experiments in space. PongSat embodies John Powell’s belief in access to near-space science for everyone. For over 30 years, Powell and his all-volunteer group, JP Aerospace, have connected ordinary people with space. They accomplish this by shrinking the size of the experiment, sending it up with balloons instead of rockets, and settling for a trip to 100,000 feet—19 miles (space begins at around 62 miles). And by piggybacking the racks onto flights paid for by customers needing to launch commercial or research payloads.
Powell, 50, has an air of good-natured, guileless enthusiasm. When he was 17, he and three friends bid on a NASA contract. “We just thought if you want to win a NASA contract to build spaceships, you write the proposal, they give you money, and you go and build spaceships,” he says. The competing bids were winnowed down to four, including Lockheed, Grumman Aircraft, a third Powell doesn’t remember, and Powell’s company. They didn’t win the contact, but the near-win launched JP Aerospace.
In 1983, Powell, studying physics at the University of California at Davis, had to drop out and work full time. Rather than explain that when corporate and Air Force officials ask him where he got his doctorate, he answers, “I am a high school graduate.” It’s part of the pride he takes in his unconventional aerospace operation.
Powell likes to inspire a fascination with science and space in children and teenagers, but his influence has reached beyond those age groups. The late Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey and table-tennis maven, enjoyed trouncing guests at his home in Sri Lanka with balls flown on JP Aerospace missions.
Powell funds PongSat flights with other projects: The company has flown payloads for the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, the states of Texas and California, Lockheed Martin, and other aerospace firms. A big contract in 2009 produced a spectacular high-definition commercial for wide-screen televisions (viewable on YouTube); it shows an armchair seeming to float to an altitude of over 90,000 feet, where it hovers in blackness. In July 2011, Samsung came calling for the rollout of a new cellphone. Courtesy of JP Aerospace, hundreds of thousands of people around the world watched online as their text messages and pictures were displayed on an example of the new phone floating in the stratosphere. More recently, JP Aerospace has flown ads for Lenovo laptops, KLM airlines, and a Colombian hamburger franchise. The group has launched more than 150 flights, using rockets, high-altitude balloons, and rockoons—rockets carried aloft by balloons and launched at high altitude.
Powell rejects investment capital, believing it would subvert the goals of his program, which include gradually developing balloon-lofted manned flights into near space. He has used Kickstarter to fund flights, offering small gifts in return for donations. One Kickstarter campaign raised over $11,000 for a 2012 PongSat flight. And the group brings in money doing the kind of small-scale work that makes it the aerospace equivalent of the neighborhood handyman: “If the Air Force needs a widget and they need it in six months and they don’t have a billion dollars,” says Powell, “we’ll get this call saying ‘JP, can you make this for me?’ And we’ll do that and maybe get rent paid for a year.”