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Hack Superman - To the Edge of Space and back

When one of our agencies called up asking us if we would help Mattel put one of their toys into space in September, at the end of their pitch my response was… “You had me at Mattel”…

Mattel’s Extreme Toys Travel Campaign takes their Action Figures to exotic and extreme locations all around the world. Inspired by Felix Baumgartner’s record breaking freefall from the edge of space and back last year, they asked us if we could replicate this jump with one of Mattel’s new Superman Action Figures. My thoughts were… how on Earth are we going to do this!… my response was … “no problem”...


The great thing about managing the DesignSpark Community is that I’ve got to know alot of very clever people!  Engineers, Makers, Hackers, Artists, Programmers and general fellow Geek types like myself. So, I didn't have to look far.

The Mission parameters

Construct a capsule attached to a weather balloon to transport Superman to the edge of Space (about 39 Kilometers/24 Miles).  Superman will jump from the capsule and safely fall back to earth.  During the flight, mission data, HD video and pictures will be taken. Both Superman and the capsule will be tracked throughout the fight using a low power radio link and GPS. Both will be located and retrieved.  At the end of the mission, we will post the video footage and all the design files, bill of materials and design notes on DesignSpark's Designshare section under an open source licence so others can build their own.


The Avengers Assemble

OK, bear with me here, I know Superman is DC Comics and not Marvel, but my plan was to assemble a team of clever people I know to help me do this.  You’ll also notice Iron Man in some of the pictures.  Iron Man has been our stunt double.  We now have a Superman, but when we started this a few weeks back, he was still being manufactured.



A while back I met Ryan White,  Ryan is one of the founders of Rlab, a Hackspace in Reading UK.  Its members consist of a skilled set of Makers, Hackers, Electronics and Software enthusiasts and Artists.  Rlab are helping us put together the electronics for the mission, using DesignSpark PCB to create a board that interfaces with a Raspberry Pi.  They will also design a chassis in our DesignSpark Mechanical tool to house the electronics.  This will then be printed out on a RepRap Pro Ormerod 3D printer. 


Left to right - Alex Gibson, Matt Daubney, Richard Ibbotson, Ryan White, David Price


Dave Akerman

Dave is a high altitude balloonist and is well known in the Raspberry Pi community. Dave has sent many things to the edge of space and back using weather balloons. Payloads include soft toys, a wedding dress and more recently, a potato for British Celebrity Chef Heston Blumenthal.


Jude Pullen 

Jude is a design modelling guru, using cardboard, plastics and a variety of everyday objects. Jude is well known in the maker community and uses his skills to create commercial proof of concept prototypes as well as fun maker projects. Jude will be designing the outer shell of the craft.


As you can imagine, High Altitude Ballooning (HAB) has many challenges!

Launch - Different restrictions apply depending on what part of the world you live in. In the UK, High Altitude Ballooning requires permission from authorities like Air Traffic Control.

The Weather - The British weather is somewhat unpredictable. It’s impossible to confirm a launch date well in advance, the general “go or no go for launch date” can only be firmed within a few days, using Weather Prediction Software. The last thing we want to do is take out Airforce One or land in the middle of a city/built up area or on motorway! It’s most likely to end up in a field in the countryside and even up a tree… climbing gear at the ready! There’s also the chance that we might have to knock on someone's front door and ask “Can we have our Spaceship back please?...

Capsule Design


Weight - The lighter the better! The heavier it is, the lower it will go, and the bigger the balloon we will need. Our capsule is likely to weigh about 2.5 Kilos. It will slowly drift down on a parachute will low impact.

The Electronics - Temperatures can reach around -60 degrees centigrade at these high altitudes. Luckily electronics tend to get warm when running, so together with this and carefully housing them inside the capsule, they should stand up to the temperatures with no problems.

Flights usually last a few hours, so we also need to ensure we experiment with batteries to ensure they last the duration of the mission.

We’ll also be using some really cool HD Video Cameras from Panasonic to document everything.


Tracking/live data - To track the capsule and Superman throughout the flight to their landing sites, generally you need a chase car and need to hang out the window with a YAGI. However, to make this easier for us, Dave Akerman is connected to a community of Amateur Radio helpers that will help us track, locate and retrieve our payload with some amazing accuracy!

Radio legislation in the UK means that we are unable to stream live video. We can however send back live pictures. The data rate, 4800 baud is pretty low, that’s about 480 characters a second, taking about 5 minutes per picture.


Mission Status

The PCB layouts are done, boards have come back and are being soldered up with the components. Next step is to test them. In parallel, the chassis for the capsule is being designed. When the chassis design is confirmed, we can then start to create the outer shell of the capsule.

Project files for the  tracker and capsule attached.

As the project progresses I’ll share more pictures and design updates.  Here's a teaser video below.

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DesignSpark Team Geek Dad, Blogger, Gadget Junkie, Technology Evangelist. DesignSpark Team. twitter - @petenwood