In July 2021, my cousin Dan and I launched a high altitude balloon with the goal of being first to put arcade tokens into near-space. Dan is the co-owner of Analog Arcade Bar in Davenport, Iowa, and is a marketing genius among his other talents. After a late night discussion after a family wedding in 2019, we hatched the idea of using high altitude balloon launches for marketing, and thought that arcade tokens would make a great first launch.
We purchased the Eagle Pro Kit from High Altitude Science as the frame for the balloon’s payload, and were very happy with the products. The flight computer, balloon, frame, tracker, and most importantly the detailed guide were all high quality and worked well.
We also purchased the optional audio beacon – a constant, loud smoke alarm beeper – which ended up being critical.
To record our efforts, we purchased two Lightdow LD6000 action cameras, essentially GoPro clones, and an external battery pack to enable them to record beyond their 70m battery life.
The most different part of this project was durably affixing the arcade tokens and token cup to the frame. To do so, we used 2-56 screws and nuts to fasten ten coins and the cup to the frame opposite the camera mounts. Dan’s father in law, Rich, is an expert fabricator and his skills and vision were critical in the build & launch.
We made a few additional modifications on top of the basics. First, we used a balsa mount to create a sturdy placement for the external battery pack, and secured it with zipties and electrical tape. Additionally, we drilled two additional mount holes for the cameras to avoid having the harness line in the middle of the shots.
24 Hours before our launch, I called the FAA’s NOTAM (NOtice To AirMen) line and got in touch with the local Flight Service Station to file a formal alert to pilots in the area that we’d be doing a launch from Anamosa, Iowa, with the times and details.
There were two more critical preparations to make. First, Dan secured 110 cubic feet of helium from a local welding supply for the balloon. Second, he set up the account for our GPS tracker, a SPOT Trace, and tested it ahead of the launch.
The day of the launch was partly cloudy with slight winds – decent conditions. Based on flight projections using the day’s weather, we drove to Anamosa, IA for the launch, expecting the balloon to track southeast back towards the Quad Cities. We arrived on site at a local sports complex in town and began preparation, assembling the final portions of the balloon and rolling footage.
We calculated we would need 400g of positive lift to reach our target of a 120 minute ascent to ~100,000 feet. At 11:30AM, we began inflating the balloon.
Once we were at our target lift, we tied the balloon off, attached it to the top of the flight train, and headed to our launch site, the middle of the football field.
We arranged the flight train with the balloon taught and upwind from the parachute and payload. Dan called a ten second countdown, Rich released the balloon, and I let the payload go as soon as the balloon had risen directly above.
We were underway.
As soon as the balloon was out of visual sight, we began tracking using the SPOT Trace tracker. We knew the tracker would cut out around 60-70,000 feet, but wanted to see how closely the actual flight path matched the predictive model. As we expected, the balloon hooked NE towards Monticello before moving SE and eventually due West, as it rose through different wind currents.
As the balloon ascended, we had a relaxing lunch in Anamosa and kept an eye on the tracker. Afterwards, we made our way south to Wilton, near where we expected the payload to land. The tracker had gone dark – it had exceeded its range. We anxiously waited for a new signal, soothing our nerves with ice cream at Wilton’s Candy Kitchen.
Suddenly, we had another ping. The payload and parachute were dropping rapidly in Walcott, just north of the World’s Largest Truckstop. We hopped in our cars and headed to the last known location, where we now had three consecutive pings in the same place.
The payload had landed.
We headed to the nearest house, a few hundred yards south of the cornfield where the tracker was pointing us. As we approached, Rich pointed out a bizarre coincidence: they had been to this house about a year before to purchase a vintage pinball machine for Analog. Dan knocked on the door and the surprise doubled down – the house was now owned by a high school friend of his! With permission, we headed through the dense cornfields in search of our payload.
With our search party fighting through the thick cropfield, we began to hear a faint beeping – our audio beacon! We broke through the edge of the field into a small clearing where we saw our payload, parachute, and balloon remnants.
After recovering the payload, celebrating, and heading home, we were eager to see the footage from the launch. Luckily, the cameras worked perfectly and we caught the entire launch. Dan produced a full launch video, shown below:
The footage was mesmerizing – we had done it! We made human history by being the first to get arcade tokens into space.
Based on flight time and location, we estimate that we crossed the 100,000ft level.
The project had two hiccups which weren’t showstoppers but which we’ll correct next time we launch. First, the flight computer did not record the data we wanted; this was human error as I accidentally used a memory card too large for the unit. against specification. Second, violent winds on the descent actually twisted a portion of the balsa frame apart. Next time we launch we’ll use stronger wood like basswood.
Dan will be incorporating this project into marketing efforts for Analog and I’ll keep this page updated as more is released.