It was my great pleasure in March 2011 to be elected to the Physics Society’s (Physoc’s) Committee as Outreach Officer.
Physoc is a very large society within the University, it has over 400 members who annually vote for their new committee. It is because of our large member base, and the quality of my opponent, that my election was such a huge honour.
The purpose of Outreach is to promote science to the wider community, especially children. It has always been a passion of mine to get involved in community outreach projects and I had sat on the Outreach sub-committee for the two years prior to my election. It was during this time that I noticed outreach was a very small activity, that could do more. We would visit only a couple of schools a year to help with science clubs, additionally, we would participate in a science fair once a year on campus for a family day. It was my intention to radically change the way outreach was run so that we can be more ambitious with our projects.
Can we go into space?
I have always been fascinated by space and space exploration. Was it too much to ask to start a Physoc Space program? Yes, yes it was, our budget doesn’t stretch that far! However, I came across a document about how someone had attached a camera to a weather balloon and managed to take some incredible photos of the Earth, from what looked like space. I instantly knew this is something we could do as a team, little did I know then that this project would consume vast quantities of my time, my own money and occasionally my sanity!
As soon as term started, in October 2011, I called together all Outreach enthusiasts for our first meeting (picture: upper right). I was blown away by the size of this group, I hadn’t even told them of my Balloon/Space plans but many of them wanted to be a part of whatever project I was leading! It was incredibly flattering and I vowed to repay their faith in me through dedication and hard work.
Needless to say, the sub-committee were equally as excited as me. I split them into teams with responsibilities for different areas of the project. We needed engineering students to bring our ambitions into line. (Physicists have a habit of thinking they can reach the stars on ideas alone, I am very much guilty of this. It is for the engineers to tell us what is currently possible). Luckily, one of my committee members lives with an engineering student who has experience in weather balloon projects and so he was invited, along with another experienced friend, to our meetings. It is because of them, Ben Oxley and Matt Brezja, that my ideas could become a reality and I have the upmost respect for all engineers. Our group was named POP (Physoc Outreach Project).
We soon had a press release (picture: right) placed on an online notice board for 200 schools in Hampshire detailing the plans. We would be running a competition for a school to design an experiment to collect data in the upper atmosphere.
Money, Money, Money!
Based on previous balloon launches we created a budget of £1,500, this would cover everything. Most of this money was on radio equipment so that we could establish our own tracking base for any additional launches. I was keen to build a foundation for my successors to ease the financial burden on any projects they choose to do in the future.
It was in November 2011 that a very large tech company phoned me to say they were interested in sponsorship. I later held a conference call with two of their public engagement members where I set out our budget and plans, they responded by saying they would be happy to pay the full amount from their 2012 budget! I was over the moon!
Lets Build this!
As soon as I put the phone down I gave the go-ahead to start buying materials, I was funding this out of my own pocket, after all, I’d get the money, wouldn’t I?
The first completed item was the flight computer (picture: right), it was a genius design by Matt Brezja and it would serve us well on the balloon journey.
It was 23rd December 2011 when I received an email from our sponsor. Simply put, a corporate decision was made to cut spending and the pot of money our sponsorship was due to come from was removed. The company was very apologetic, but they couldn’t help us anymore.
Immediately I approved a budget slash to £700 and as soon as term started again I was knocking on doors in the Physics building trying to raise funds from any source I could. I slashed the budget because we decided to borrow and beg our way to the launch.
We were saved by Prof. Peter De Groot, the Head of Physics, who gave us £500 from the alumni fund and by Pearl John, Departmental Outreach, who gave us £200 from her own budget. They saved our project!
Not another disaster!
It was now February and everything had be going perfectly. We had announced our winning school, who designed a black box for a Mars rover, and we were in the final preparations for a launch.
About two weeks before our scheduled launch the school contacted to to say they needed more time to finish. I offered them the expertise of my engineers to help and we delayed the launch. After two more delays, the school withdrew and the committee panicked.
We decided to contact as many primary schools as we could and get them to send us ping pong balls fill with items we could take into ‘space’. We were sent; Cress Seeds, Flowers, Coke, Mentos, Lego, Grapes, Tomatoes, Starbursts, Sherbet, Tea Bags, Marshmallows and loads more wacky ideas.
Launch day arrived, June 12th 2012, months of hard work finally came together on an overcast morning. I was very nervous.
At 12:55pm I was holding onto something I had dreamed of making just a year earlier, only a piece of nylon string in my grasp was preventing the balloon, flight computer and children’s experiments from entering the upper atmosphere. I ran with the wind to stabilise the capsule before I let go and stared into the sky until the huge weather balloon became a dot in the sky. All we had now was the radio communication beeping its digital morse code and interpreted by a computer. We jumped in a car, grabbed some lunch and chased the balloon.
A few hours later the GPS co-ordinates sent by the flight computer led us to a field where we found a small crater in the long grass and a polystyrene box. We grabbed the SD card from the cameras and the pictures we found were incredible!
Conference Show Off
A month Later I found myself in Sheffield at the Conference of Astronomy and Physics Students (CAPS 2012).
I presented my story of POP as a guest speaker, along with 15 other students. I won ‘Best Student Lecture’ and I feel it rounded off an incredible journey where I reached as close to space as I probably ever will.