And Return It Safely To Earth …

Those of, cough, my generation, will remember watching with awe as a President’s clear and concise statement of intent was brought to fruition, played out on our monochrome TV sets as grainy, ghostly images accompanied by words that will last for as long as mankind. And thus were inspired a generation of astronauts, scientist, engineers and space-followers.

Image result for apollo 11 first step

Space travel remains, for now, beyond the reach of most, but near-space has never been more accessible. All you need is a big balloon, some helium, a suitable tracking device and some knowledge about how to fly it legally and successfully. So if, like me, you were born too late and too not-American to be part of NASA’s efforts to put a man on the moon, you can have your own near-space programme to at least partially relieve those frustrations!

Apollo 50

This week it’s the 50’th anniversary of that first moon landing, with the launch on 16th July, landing on 20th July, return launch on 21st July, and splashdown in the Pacific on 24th July. To commemorate the achievement I looked for a suitable model to fly under a weather balloon. Both Revell and Lego have models that you can purchase and build, but not all of them are of practical size (or even weight!) for a high altitude balloon flight! I settled on the Revell Apollo 11 Columbia & Eagle kit, which is small and light, with pretty good detail (and there’s one in London’s Science Museum!)

It’s 60 parts, with glue, gold foil, paint and brush included (but not quite all the colours required!). You’ll also need a craft knife, tweezers, brush cleaner and ideally some different size brushes.

The kit includes parts for the command module (CM):

the service module:

and the lunar lander (LM). Here you can see the CSM (Command and Service Module), plus the LM ascent stage and descent stage.

Here’s an assembled model in the Science Museum in London:


The final step was to mount my model in front of a suitable camera. Commonly people use balsa wood or similar, but that’s just ugly, and I prefer to use either clear acrylic rod or sheet underneath the object, or (as in this case) thin carbon fibre rod above it. That meant carefully drilling a hole in my carefully built model, then inserting the rod and some glue …

Mission Control

Just as the forces from Saturn 5 culminated in accelerating the astronauts and their tiny home away from home towards the moon, the efforts of thousands of engineers converged in the iconic form of mission control. It’s definitely the place I would have wanted to be at the time if I’d had the opportunity.

So to support my little near-space Apollo 11 flight, I decided to build a virtual mission control console, making it is close to the original as I could with a reasonable amount of effort.

This provide several different functions:

  • Live video from the launch site
  • SSDV – live images from the flight itself
  • Live map showing balloon/parachute
  • 3D simulation of the view from the balloon
  • Live telemetry
  • Receiver statistics

Also, because I just cannot resist the temptation, I added a few gimmicks …

  • All monitor screens in monochrome
  • Button clicks and Quindar tones when selecting a function
  • Various Apollo 11 playback sounds (launch sequence, landing and the 1202 error!)
  • During descent, the map shows 3 Apollo-style parachutes
  • Analogue TV interference when changing channels ….

Payload and Tracking

As with most of my flights I used a Raspberry Pi with tracker board added, and had it send images and a landing prediction as well as the usual telemetry. I used a wide-angle lens on the Pi camera so the Apollo model could be placed closed to it. The camera has manual focus which I set to have the model in focus.

The pi was placed in a foam polystyrene box, made up of 2 commercial (Hobbycraft) boxes glued together, and with an SJ4000 action camera and extra battery.

As a backup I added a simple AVR tracker in a small foam egg.


This hobby is very dependent on the weather; if the launch winds are too high then filling and launching can be very difficult if not impossible, and if the winds in general and higher altitude winds in particular are too strong or going in the wrong direction then it can be impossible to have the flight land somewhere safe (i.e. nowhere near a town or major road).

I’d hoped to launch on moon landing day, but forecast winds were rather too high to launch, especially with a delicate payload which, if it hit the ground at launch (that’s what tends to happen in strong winds) was likely to get broken thus making the entire flight pointless. Further, the landing prediction was too far away for high definition images.

In contrast, the predictions for the Apollo 11 launch anniversary were perfect; next to no launch wind, and a very, very convenient flight path!


So I applied to the CAA for a NOTAM, and made the plans to fly on Apollo 11’s launch anniversary.


The launch day was lovely as expected. My NOTAM was from 9am to 3pm, which was just as well as someone else launched during the morning, on the same frequency as I was using and without announcing the flight to the community! Rather than reprogram my trackers to a different frequency, I waited for their flight to land and then got my payloads ready:

I set up a live video stream to YouTube, using a Pi Zero W and a wide-angle camera, aimed from an upstairs window down over the garden where I fill my balloons. Here’s a shot from the stream, as displayed in the Apollo dashboard:

The launch itself was very easy, and we watched the balloon quickly rise in the sky with the payload swinging below …

Live Dashboard

As the landing prediction was only a few miles from the launch site, I had plenty of time to follow the launch online via my dashboard:



I waited till shortly after the balloon burst (pretty much on schedule at an altitude of around 38.7km) before setting off to the landing area predicted by the Raspberry Pi tracker. It’s a hilly area, and I found somewhere to park that would have line-of-sight hopefully all the way to the ground, which it did. For a long while it looked like the flight wouldn’t actually reach the ground, but in the end it swung away from the trees just before landing.

As well as being hilly, the area was very rural with no roads closer than about 800m from the landing spot. I drive around the closest roads and found a track that would take me closer, then found a nearby resident to ask who owned the land. He sent me to the landowner’s estate office, and they very helpfully printed out an area map with footpaths shown. As it happened, there was a public footpath that would take me very close to the payload, so I got back in the car, parked up near the footpath, then set out on foot with my phone running my HAB Explora app connected to a small USB telemetry receiver. With the payload around 800m away, I’d expect to receive telemetry already, but the hilly terrain meant that there was no line-of-sight and I didn’t receive telemetry till around 300m from the payload.

It was a pleasant, if strenuous, walk, with this lovely sight when I got to the top!

Amazingly, the Apollo model was completely intact although the (tethered) support arm had broken away from the payload on landing:

And here’s the lovely view on the way back down …


Of course the main aims of the flight were photographic, and this is what I found when I got the memory cards back home …


and 10 minutes from the video …

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3 Responses to And Return It Safely To Earth …

  1. Jens Home says:

    Super idea and super flight dave! Next time I start a “Daedalus“ Mission with my students from our Schoolstation DK0LG. The payload is more simpler (like sputnik 1 or cricketsat) and built and planned by the students himself.
    Greetings from germany
    Jens (DM4JH)

  2. Shulman says:

    Very cool Dave. At my school we also did a tribute to the 50th Anniversary and captured an image of the Moon lander and a little astronaut holding a flag that had a 50 on it – I was born July 14, 1969 so it was a little bit about my birthday as well. I sent it to NASA and ended up invited to Goddard Space Flight Centre last October to do a presentation about our flight and the stratospheric balloon program that I run at my school. You can see details of our flight at:

  3. Shulman says:

    Very cool Dave. We use a PITS board on our flights. At my school we also did a tribute to the 50th Anniversary and captured an image of the Moon lander and a little astronaut holding a flag that had a 50 on it – I was born July 14, 1969 so it was a little bit about my birthday as well. I sent it to NASA and ended up invited to Goddard Space Flight Centre last October to do a presentation about our flight and the stratospheric balloon program that I run at my school. You can see details of our flight at:

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