Forget billionaire Richard Branson’s overpriced tourist that Vanden Berg lovingly programmed himself in C.
spaceships. For a few thousand bucks, physics stu- The operator could provide manual control via the
dent Art Vanden Berg put his computer-controlled radio link, but the glider usually flew autonomously
model glider 79,000 feet into the stratosphere. This using a large set of software decision trees. Position
summer, he plans to launch a second prototype and flight data streamed into the system from a
even higher. Garmin GPS sensor and sensors for temperature,
The ill-fated test craft had a wingspan of about direction, G-load, and airspeed. The glider sent
four feet, weighed about six pounds, and achieved real-time photos and atmospheric readings to the
its high altitudes when carried by helium-filled ground using a packet-radio with a 120-mile range.
weather balloons. A glider is much more versatile On its fifth and last journey, the glider couldn’t
than other payloads, which often depend on para- quite clear a snowy mountain peak nearly 60 miles
chutes to fall to Earth. Vanden Berg’s craft remained from the launch site. “It was actually good luck be-aloft for up to four hours, snapping beautiful, cause now I can build a really skookum glider,” says
low-res color pics the whole time. “Above 60,000 Vanden Berg, employing local slang for “cool.” He
feet the Earth has a definite curvature; the temper- now has a new airframe at almost half the weight
ature’s around -50 degrees Celsius [-58° F], and and a good chance at pulling images from 89,000
the sky is black because you’re above most of the feet above the surface of the Earth.
atmosphere,” notes the native of Victoria, Canada. —Bob Parks
And most of the time, the plane flew right back to
the launch site. >>High Altitude Glider: members.shaw.ca/sonde/
For a pilotless craft, the fiberglass and spruce
shell hid a lot of smarts. A fist-size 25-MHz PC in
the fuselage ran DOS and over 13,000 lines of code