An Ode to Creators and Homemade Space Exploration

Hello all!! It’s been ages since I’ve had a chance to post, but I’ve got a great story for you. I first met Cameron Smith in 2010 when he led my very first archaeology field school. I worked with him again as an assistant over the next two seasons, and he went off to work on a project he’d been dreaming about for some time: To design and create an open-source, high-altitude space suit for exploring the upper reaches of the atmosphere in a hot air balloon. Yup, a homemade space suit. I LOVE IT. Here’s a short piece a local news station did on Cameron a while back.

I’d never had time to help him out, but I watched his updates on Facebook over the last few years and loved every new milestone he managed to reach, along with the help from some very dedicated students. As time passed media outlets and other organizations began to take notice of his work and invited him to give presentations, and you can watch some of them here.

About a year ago Cameron told me he was planning to do a test balloon flight out in the desert somewhere and wanted to know if I’d like to come along as a photographer. Um, YES! So after about a year’s worth of scouting locations, he decided on the Alvord Desert in SE Washington, part of a network of dry, alkaline lake beds that stretch down into Nevada (The same desert network that hosts Burning Man, in fact), and a few weeks ago I, Cameron and the students, a professional production film crew, and an amazing photographer named Travis Stanton headed out to the big, empty desert to test out the suit at altitude. For context: The main purpose of the flight was to test the suit at a low altitude and see how it performed; were there any leaks, or issues with the air hoses, etc.

Yep, that’s us, after a 4am wakeup and an almost-perfect test flight (there was a bit of panic when that fan that inflated the balloon suddenly self-destructed, but we found a way to make it all work) . You can see a few more great shots on Travis’s Instagram here. I don’t have the level of camera gear that Travis has (The footage he shot with his camera drone was AMAZING) but I got some good behind-the-scenes shots of our preparations.

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PHOTO CREDIT: TRAVIS STANTON  (in my defense, I had about three layers of clothes on under that fire-resistant jumpsuit, which is why I’m shaped like a Teletubby in this shot)

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Cameron on the left, and Ben, the trusty guinea pig, trying out the suit

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Travis Stanton getting some excellent “hero” shots of Cameron after the test.

You can see a couple of the hero shots on Travis’s website here

There are still plenty of design kinks to work out (as one would expect when building a space suit from scratch), such as figuring out how to make it easier to get into and out of. Poor Ben, he’s such a good sport.

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Ben trying to squeeze out of the suit. It’s designed to fit Cameron’s frame, and Ben is probably a good 5″ taller.

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Travis controlling the camera drone with joysticks and a live viewing screen, while Tiberius, the film crew cameraman, watches.

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It’s so difficult to capture just how huge and empty and flat that desert is, and how incredibly beautiful.

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This is probably about 6:30am on test flight day, and there’s Travis with one of his many wonderful toys

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Prepping and assembling the balloon and all the gauges and hoses for the suit was about a four-hour process (hence the need to get up at 4am) and we had to get that balloon in the air before the wind picked up. That’s Cameron on the left, Travis on the right.

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Our little camp in the middle of nowhere, a good mile from any road. That’s Paulina helping to get the suit properly folded after the test flight.

The flight itself was very short, but well worth the time and expense. Cameron came up with a checklist of things that need refining and modification, and we’re working away as time allows, back here in Portland. About a week ago I went down to Cameron’s office/workshop to help out and have a meeting about the results of the test flight, and Paulina, who’s been helping handle the suit, decided to try it on to get a better understanding of what it’s like on the inside.

First you put on a set of long johns that have cooling tubes sewn around it. The tubes are attached to a container of ice water and keep the person in the suit from overheating, which happens VERY fast, even when it’s extremely cold outside the suit. The cap has cooling lines and an intercom system.

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Next is the yellow inflatable suit. This is the pressure suit that keeps the person’s blood pressure normal at high altitudes, by having air pumped in at high pressure.

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And then the outer layer: A blue mesh that’s there mostly to keep the yellow inflated suit from going “POOOF!” and turning into a Gumby-shaped balloon.

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Once Paulina was suited up, Cameron explained how to operate the air flow gauges and read the pressure dials. Very important info when you’re sealed in a space suit!

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Last is the helmet. I love this part. Remember I said this suit is homemade? I wasn’t kidding. When Cameron was looking for a way to seal the helmet to the suit, he found a genius solution: The locking rings from a pressure cooker. And it totally works!  🙂

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One of the hardest parts of making your own space suit is funding. Cameron is a college professor, and the pay ain’t what it used to be. He’s gotten some generous donations along the way, but he ALWAYS welcome more, and we’re going to need those funds to get to the next level, and the next flight test. If you’d like to donate and help the project, here’s some info. (we’re working on getting a Kickstarter going but it’ll be a while before that’s up and running). You can also “like” the Facebook fan page to get updates on the project. If you live in the Portland area and are interested in volunteering with the project, you can also message Pacific Spaceflight on Facebook.

Thank you for reading, and I’ll be sure to let you know when we’re getting ready to head out to the desert again!

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In Praise Of Editing Apps

So tonight I was fiddling around with various editing apps, as I often do when I’m having trouble getting to sleep, and I ended up making an image I’m rather pleased with:

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I thought I’d share how I created this image, in case anyone out there is interested in learning about some new free apps and/or new techniques to try.

So first I started with this photo:

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Yup, just a random snapshot of an oil slick in a wet parking lot.

Step 1: I loaded the image into Snapseed. This is my usual go-to app for basic photo editing. It has some nice filters and tools and it’s fairly user-friendly if you’re new to editing apps.

For starters I only adjusted the contrast and saturation to make the colors pop a bit more:

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Step 2: I uploaded the new image into PicsArt. This app kind of wants to be a mini-photoshop, but I’m not terribly wowed by it. Don’t get me wrong, it has a lot of tools that some people absolutely love and are quite handy, there just aren’t a lot of tools that do anything I’d ever want. But hey, I’ve uploaded apps before just to use one filter or effect, nothing wrong with that.

So anyway, I went to the “Distort” menu and used “Twirl” to turn the image into a spiral:

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I used the Twirl tool three separate times until I got just the right amount of spiral (when you’re using the tool there’s a little gear icon you can poke, and that’ll show you the settings that adjust how the tool works)

Step 3: I went to one of the other filter menus in PicsArt, the “Lens Flare” menu. This is what I used to add the look of bright stars to the spiral (If you couldn’t tell by now, I was make a galaxy). When I was relatively happy with it, this is the image I had:

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Step 4: Because I just wasn’t ready to quit playing yet (it’s a compulsion I’ve had since childhood: Obsessive Arting) I took a copy of the starry galaxy and loaded it into the Dreamscope app.

First I used the filter “Angel Hair” and wound up with this:

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Step 5: I then ran the image through a filter (We’re still in the Dreamscope app) called Waves of Matsushima”. It’s a very effect-heavy filter that will add patterns of trees into the image, distort the fine details, and change the colors to mostly soft greens and beiges, but how your image ends up and how drastic the filter looks will totally depend on the image you started with. Here’s what I got:

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Step 6: I wasn’t quite happy with the colors and all that beige blandness, so it took it back over to Snapseed and tinkered with the hue (The tool “Image Adjust) has a “warmth” setting that you can use to make the image cooler or warmer) and contrast a bit until I was happy.

And there you have it. From this…..

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…..to this is in 6 weirdly random steps 🙂

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The Beauty Of Bones

I’ve always been fascinated by bones. They are truly works of biological sculpture. The strength and fragility, the shapes and structures, foramenae and fossa, sutures and epiphyses, I love them all.

I got rear-ended in traffic the other day and am stuck at home with a very painful injured neck, so playing with photos of the deer skull I just finished cleaning has been a welcome distraction. Enjoy!

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C.T. Evolves

So if you saw my last post you read about the beautiful cat skeleton I excavated from my friend’s back yard. Well after I got the bones cleaned and dried I set to work making this baby into a work of art. I found a gorgeous iridescent paint that morphs from turquoise to blue to purple (pictures just don’t do it justice), and after the paint dried I laid out the skull and long bones to look at while I thought about what sort of art I wanted to make. That’s when I snapped this shot, and I’d really just meant it to be a simple snapshot but it turned out so beautifully it’s almost a work of art in itself. Stay tuned for shots of the finished piece!
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A Little Afternoon Excavation

So a couple of friends of mine moved into a new house a few months ago (New to them, but the house was built in the 40s and oh boy it’s a rabbit’s den of old and new additions, cubbyholes, and questionable wiring), and in the back yard, once they’d cleared away about a decade’s worth of uncontrolled blackberry growth, they found what looked like a little pet grave marker (This is the point where pretty much everyone who’s ever read “Pet Sematary” would get a little creeped out)

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Since they know I’m trained in archaeology and love working with bone, they asked me to come check it out, so I got out my trusty flat-nose trowel and started carefully digging (Many archaeologists prefer the pointed-nose trowel, but my flat-nose is my very first trowel and it’s served me well through four field seasons and I love it. Archaeologists get very protective of their trowels).

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I dug down about a foot and didn’t find anything at all, nothing but loamy-clayey dirt, and we started to wonder if maybe the grave marker was a prank or maybe a raccoon had already dug up whatever was down there, but I decided to keep going just in case, and at about 18″ (Archaeology is always done in metric but I forgot to bring my metric tape measure) I saw a little hint of blue fabric, which you can see at the top of the photo above, as well as a little peek of the side of a skull, which you can see in the photo below just to the left of that leaf.

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I carefully scraped away the rest of the soil and found a perfect intact cat skeleton, carefully wrapped in a pillow case and a t-shirt with a baseball team logo on it (couldn’t read the team name, unfortunately). I set the bones on top of the dirt pile to keep them together and did my best to be sure that the hole was clean of all materials. You can see the very dirty, moldy bones at the top of the photo below.

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Now if you’ve done any archaeology fieldwork you’ll probably notice that my walls look terrible. In my defense it was VERY sandy clay, and quite damp, so my walls were crumbling all over the place, plus I am FAR more careful on official digs (I can cut a damned gorgeous profile, if I do say so myself) and this was pretty casual and exploratory, with no expectation of finding culturally or historically significant materials.

I took the newly unearthed CT (Since those letters were painted on the grave marker we decided to keep that as his name. I’m only guessing it’s a male from the size of the bones, but I’m really not an expert on feline skeletal anatomy) back home with me and carefully washed him in clean water and cleaned off the remaining dirt and mold with a soft toothbrush, and here he is in all his glory. Such a beautiful set of bones, and nothing broken! (Usually the bones I use in my art come from road kill, so I typically end up with a lot of fractured and broken bones, and they can be a real pain to piece back together). I’m missing most of the tail vertebrae, foot bones, and teeth (probably got lost in the fill dirt, though some of the tooth loss could have occurred before death), but otherwise it’s a pristine skeleton, and I look forward to using the bones for making beautiful new art, always keeping in mind that this beautiful creature was loved, and deserves respect and care every step of the way.

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