To Space (Okay, Near-Space) in a Balloon

A little company dreams of replacing rocket power with buoyancy.

JP Aerospace’s “high rack”—a rig with cameras fins, and antennas, delivers another bunch of “Pongsat” experiments to near-space. (JP Aerospace)
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Most observers assume that, if the laws of physics don’t defeat Powell, his financial-organizational model will. They believe that building ATO would require scaling up operations to include full-time paid staff and funding in the hundreds of millions.

For now, Powell works exclusively with a team of volunteers. “The team is everything,” Powell says. “It’s not me or the engineering, the money, or the science. If the team is working, everything is possible. If you don’t have a working team, you’re not going to get across the street, let alone to space.”

About 200 people have worked with JP Aerospace at one time or another. Anyone can volunteer, but, after a six-month trial period, each novice needs five active members to vouch for him or her in order to become a regular member. Powell handles all fundraising and regulatory paperwork, so the volunteers can put all their time into hands-on work.

They come in on Saturdays and Tuesday evenings, and they devote more time as flights approach. Why the sacrifice? For many, a major draw is hands-on involvement in a space project with visible results. Anthony Gregory, an electrical engineer who has worked with JP Aerospace for three years, put it this way: “I want to see something happen in my lifetime. I like to get in and work some little piece out and make it work with the big picture in mind.” Being part of the team also provides a powerful sense of camaraderie and connects team members to space. Unlike thousands who, when the shuttle program ended, had to abandon their dreams of working in the space field, JPA volunteers feel they are in the game. And this is Powell’s dream—ordinary people directly engaged with space.

JP Aerospace’s strengths are also its weaknesses. Its bantam size, rejection of investment capital, and reliance on volunteers have sustained it for decades and nurtured the operation’s knack for speed, frugality, and improvisation. On the other hand, the small group cannot at this point compete with big aerospace companies—SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, Boeing—that have the resources to create next-generation manned spacecraft.

Still, Powell has accomplished something satisfying: He has created a long-running and most unusual aerospace company, one that welcomes anyone who is interested. Through JP Aerospace, hundreds of people have been able to participate in high-altitude missions; thousands have had experiments flown to 100,000 feet and returned; and hundreds of thousands have watched their cell-phone messages and pictures beamed back from the edge of space. Some future astronauts, space scientists, and engineers will probably have gotten their start with high-flying Ping-Pong-size balls on JP Aerospace flights. And if, on a long shot, Powell succeeds in his ultimate goal, he will connect people directly to the mystery and grandeur of space by first floating them there on a slow boat to orbit.

About Mark Karpel

Mark Karpel takes breaks from his practice as a psychologist to write about people who think big and get carried away. His article on cluster balloonists appeared in the Aug. 2010 issue.

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