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Harrington College of Design Photography Class Sends First Toy Camera to the Edge of Space

What began as a challenge for students at Harrington College of Design in Chicago resulted in the first ever photograph of the earth from the stratosphere — 95,000 feet above the planet’s surface — using a toy Holga film camera.

Harrington College of Design students took the first ever photograph of the earth from the stratosph ...

Harrington College of Design students took the first ever photograph of the earth from the stratosphere - 95,000 feet above the planet's surface - using toy Holga film cameras enclosed in a cooler (pictured) suspended from a balloon. (Photo: Business Wire)

The student-led project was part of a 15-week Modern Alternative Photographic Practices class, culminating with the official balloon launch Aug. 29, 2013. The original concept was to send something up to the stratosphere to photograph the earth, but the idea of using a Holga came from a student. Today’s Holga is the current incarnation of a line of inexpensive, medium-format film cameras created in 1982. Costing about $25, it’s a molded plastic box with a fixed shutter, plastic lens and a simple viewfinder. There is no prism, no auto-focus and no motor drive, yet the Holga has developed a cult following because, given the right conditions, its simplicity can produce wonderful pictures.

Since each camera would only shoot a single image, the team strategically placed four Holgas in a repurposed cooler, with holes cut on each side so a lens was pointed out on opposite sides. The biggest challenge: How to trigger the four cameras while they floated in bitter temperatures twenty miles above the earth’s surface. The Harrington students tested several mechanisms before one developed a concept robust enough to trip all cameras in near-freezing space temperatures — an automobile power door lock actuator. For a trial launch, an old-fashioned alarm clock was gutted and used as the timing mechanism, but that was replaced with a more reliable modern photo timer for the second launch.

The second challenge was positioning the Spot II satellite GPS tracker. To track the location and follow the cameras back to earth, the GPS needed to be pointing toward the sky at all times. That wouldn’t be a problem while suspended beneath the helium-filled weather balloon or floating down by parachute, but if the styrofoam cooler landed on its back or nose, it could be the difference between retrieving it or losing it. A student suggested placing the GPS unit in a Gyro Bowl™, designed to keep small children from spilling their food. The Spot II was a shade too big to fit into the bowl, but Department Chair of Photography Programs Dirk Fletcher didn’t let that stop them. Overnight, he created a fully functional Gyro Bowl-inspired cradle that functions as a three-axis gimbal.

The final payload carried four Holgas with two tripping mechanisms, which each fired two cameras at the same time. It took one hour and fifty-three minutes to reach its highest altitude before the balloon popped, sending the cameras back to earth on a parachute. The return took a mere 20 minutes and 59 seconds from the edge of space to a cornfield forty-five miles away.

“We did pick up quite a bit more radiation fogging on the other side of the ozone layer then we were expecting, but it adds to the look and feel of the final image,” Fletcher explained. “I love the authenticity it adds.”

Attend “Find Your Space at Harrington” Oct. 10 from 5 to 8 p.m., which will showcase the image from space in a 40-inch print on display, along with the materials, contraptions and videos that document the entire process from start to finish. The event will be held at Harrington College, 200 W. Madison Street, Chicago. Fletcher and his team of students will be in attendance to discuss or answer any questions about the project. The first 100 attendees will receive a special print edition of the photo.

The video of the Holga’s voyage into space and back can be viewed here.

See the image captured by the Holga by visiting Fletcher’s blog.

RSVP to the gallery show at findyourspace.eventbrite.com.

About Harrington College of Design

Harrington College of Design an institution of higher learning is committed to creating the next generation of design professionals to lead and serve the global community. Harrington has been a member of Chicago’s design and higher education communities since 1931 and seeks to foster an environment that maximizes students’ intellectual and artistic potential. Harrington offers associate’s degrees in digital photography; bachelor’s degrees in interior design, commercial photography, web design + development and graphic design; and master’s degrees in interior design and communication design. The school is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission and a member of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (230 South LaSalle St., Suite 7-500 Chicago, IL 60604-1411). Find disclosures on graduation rates, student financial obligations and more at www.harrington.edu/disclosures. Harrington cannot guarantee employment or salary and is part of the Career Education Corporation network of schools (NASDAQ: CECO). For more information on Harrington College of Design, call 877.939.4975 or visit www.harrington.edu.

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