Cosmic Camera Makes a Dizzying Trip

The well-loved and wonderfully simple Holga journeys to the edge of space

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Dirk Fletcher / Harrington College of Design

View of Earth from the Stratosphere taken by the Modern Alternative Photographic Practices' Holga plastic 'toy' camera.

It’s starting to seem as if you can send almost anything into space these days: your grandmother’s ashes, 3D printers, Hello Kitty dolls. This summer, that list of flying stuff grew to include a Holga camera—four of them, actually. The Holga—as you surely know if you’re a photo buff and probably don’t if you’re not—is the simplest, crudest, film camera there is. It’s made of basic plastic, it wouldn’t know a hi-def digital image if it fell over one and for those reasons and more, it has a wildly enthusiastic cult following—and has since its introduction in the early 1980s. Technically, none of the Holgas went to space, but they did make it to the stratosphere—105,000 ft. or 19.8 mi. (32,000 m, 32 km)  up. That’s plenty high enough to get a good picture of Earth with that wonderful, cosmic, shot-from-space look about it.

The Holgas—as befits their wonderfully low-tech nature—were flown by a rag-tag team of photography students at the Harrington College of Design and their rebel-with-a-cause professor, Dirk Fletcher. Fletcher runs a beloved summer course, Modern Alternative Photographic Practices, in which he aims to teach his students to become MacGyvers of photography. Inspired by their department’s “Golden Holga” award, Fletcher and five of his students challenged themselves to build—from scratch—a vessel that could take the cameras toward space and fire the shutters at the right time. Part of the clunky Holga’s charm is that it takes a great deal of force to fire its trigger. That by itself increased the project’s already high degree of difficulty—making it something of  a photographic odyssey, requiring ever greater feats of ingenuity. The team ended up with an ingenious camera-carrying space vessel, an incredible Go-Pro video (wait for the ballon to pop!), and a singular image of the blue planet. Here, in brief, are three of their best innovations:

  1. The Tripping Mechanism: One of the biggest problems Fletcher and his students faced was how to fire those sticky shutters. They needed a mechanism that would deliver the right amount of force, 100% of the time, in freezing temperatures. After a few failed attempts (including, at one point, a spinning X-acto knife), one of the students had an inspiration: power car door lock actuators. It turned out that two Ford actuators provide the right amount of pressure, about 15 pounds (6.8 kg).
  2. The GPS Mount: Getting the cameras into near-space was one thing. Getting them back was a whole different matter. Fletcher and his students found a GPS device that would continue to work as it traveled in and out of the stratosphere—which is not a sure thing, since many GPS systems rely on cell towers, which are useless once you get a mile or two off the ground. Instead, the team used a heavy-duty model that is intended for hikers and relies on satellites alone. The only remaining issue was that the GPS would have to stay pointing towards the sky no matter what side the vessel landed on when it returned to Earth, otherwise the payload might never be recovered. In another stroke of serendipitous genius, a visiting student remembered seeing Gyro bowls in an infomercial—nested plastic bowls for kids that stay right-side-up no matter which way they’re twisted or turned. Using this concept, Fletcher built a rig that approximated the same effect and kept the GPS inside the camera carrying vessel upright.
  3. The Vehicle: Finding a weather balloon to get the cameras up to 105,000 feet was easy. Finding a vessel to keep the Holgas cozy proved to be more of a challenge. The team ended up housing the cameras, tripping mechanism, GPS,  and two GoPro cameras in a giant three foot by two foot styrofoam Omaha Steak Club cooler. “I didn’t know you could get that many Omaha Steaks,” said Fletcher. Fortunately, the Holgas weighed much less than the meat.

PHOTOS: (Top Ten Strange Objects Sent Into Space)