Guest Blog: Sending Picard, Kirk, & More To Space

By Logan Kugler - May 26, 2012

Captain Jean-Luc Picard and Captain James Tiberius Kirk have been mythically soaring throughout the galaxy for the last 45-plus years. Now they have finally gotten their first taste of the real thing -- and have officially made it to the final frontier! This happened on May 5, 2012, and Logan Kugler explains how...

Captain Picard is my hero, so when Shannon Downey pulled a Picard action figure out of her purse around a campfire at the close of an event I was recently attending, a truly serendipitous moment was about to begin. Imagine my surprise and delight when there I was, sitting fireside at night out by the pool of the venue hotel, we land on the subject of Star Trek — I confess, I probably had something to do with that — and then this woman pulls a Picard doll right out of her purse, with only the light of the campfire to illuminate her face and the Picard doll she's holding up.

Now realize often I'll meet a Star Trek fan, but rarely do I find one out in the wild that shares my level of passion for the series. I've seen almost 500 episodes of Star Trek, every movie; more than 20,000 minutes of Trek in total. Star Trek has done more to expand my imagination than anything else. Star Trek has invited me over and over again to consider possibilities of existence that I hadn't previously contemplated. And I value that deeply because there's nothing more important than imagination.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create." - Albert Einstein

If Captain Picard were real, he would be my #1 hero. In my book, he's a 10 on the coolness scale.

So a couple of weeks after my encounter with Shannon and her Picard doll, I had a spontaneous idea. Picard is the greatest starship captain to ever live, but he's never made it to space in reality, right? So let's send him there! Not Patrick Stewart, of course, but his action figure to symbolically represent the historic journey. (But if you're reading, Sir Patrick, and want to go to space for real, call me. I can make that happen.)

And not on a rocket, but on a high-altitude balloon. Think weather balloon. Sounds unremarkable, but high-altitude balloons reach impressive heights, way beyond where the SR-71 Blackbird or even U-2 Spy Plane used to fly, and easily high enough to see the curvature of the Earth. They reach a region known as near space, which extends from 65,000 feet to 327,359 feet. At 327,360 feet (100 kilometers/62 miles) starts The Kármán Line, which is the point at which it’s widely accepted that outer space begins.

The idea began to expand: if we're going to send Picard, let's send him atop of the Enterprise-D and send Riker and Data, as well! And let's also send Kirk and the NCC-1701 and the two leading men behind the 2009 Star Trek movie, J.J. Abrams and Roberto Orci. (I had a doll maker create custom hand-sculpted action figures of Abrams and Orci.)

It wasn't long before this small side project started to take on a life of its own. I'm no engineer, so I knew I needed some experts to tackle the engineering side. I reached out to a few organizations and SEDS (Students for The Exploration and Development of Space) responded with the perfect man for the job: Spencer Gore; an engineering student at the University of Illinois, major Star Trek fan, and the founder of a company called Space for All, which launches small commercial payloads aboard high-altitude balloons. I linked up with Spencer and he and his team began to construct the payload.

The next thing to do was get funding. I turned to Kickstarter.com, a crowdfunding platform for creative projects. I launched a campaign and shortly raised almost 2.5X the goal with the help of nearly 200 backers. In the process, a producer at Discovery Channel's Daily Planet show picked us up and decided to send out a film crew to capture Picard and Kirk's historic flight for national TV. Here's the episode that aired (the 7-minute long segment begins at 7:37): Click HERE.

We got a logo and official t-shirts made, flew our very own director of photography (DP) out to Champaign, IL, to video the launch so he could put together a professionally edited final video (still being edited as of this writing), and, before I knew it, launch day had arrived.

We had a payload that was nearly 10 feet across carrying Captain Picard, Riker and Data aboard the USS Enterprise-D on one side and Captain Kirk, Abrams and Orci aboard the USS Enterprise NCC-1701 on the other. And because it all means nothing unless we have the whole trip documented, 6 HD cameras also went along for the ride, including a 3D camera (special thanks to SanDisk for supplying the high-capacity memory cards we needed!). We also had tracking systems galore: GPS, HAM, cell phones, even Morse code.

When we arrived at the state park, we were met with the option of either launching from the parking lot or a nice green field on the other side of a fence that was locked and said "closed" on a nice, big sign. Because lush green field looks a lot better on camera than an old parking lot, I told everyone to jump the fence and set up in the field. About an hour later, I spotted Spencer down the road talking to the park ranger. Apparently, there needed to be a lifeguard/attendant on-duty in order to be permitted in the area we were in because it was aside the lake, despite no intentions of going in the water. I managed to convince the park ranger to give us an hour. 

Well, as anything with space goes, it took longer than an hour from that point to launch. Two hours later the park ranger came back and wasn't so nice this time, understandably so considering I had told him we were going to be out of there an hour ago. The options were: launch within 10 minutes or leave immediately. We launched within 10 minutes.

5, 4, 3, 2, 1… "Blast off!" except without the rocket blast. Quickly, Picard and Kirk climbed. The tracking reports came back as we chased it around central Illinois in our 9-car convoy: 25,000 feet, 35,000 feet, 63,000 feet, 74,000 feet, 78,000 feet, 90,000 feet, 95,000 feet...

The balloon popped at an altitude of around 100,000 feet, where the sky is black, starkly contrasted by the blue atmosphere of the Earth below. The balloon expanded to nearly 40 feet in diameter before bursting, and Picard, Kirk, crew and starships parachuted safely back to the Earth, touching down at around a gentle 15 MPH. We recovered the entire payload fully intact and undamaged from its landing site in a desolate cornfield near the town of Glen Avon, IL, about 300 yards off the road. The best part? The Enterprise-D landed perfectly flat, as though Picard coordinated the landing himself. And fittingly representing Kirk's more-aggressive, go-out-guns-blazing persona, the NCC-1701 came in nose-first. I can only imagine something Kirk might have said before landing: "OK, everyone, hold on tight. We're going in hot!"

During the two-hour flight, Kirk and Picard spent nearly 90 minutes in the stratosphere, where temperatures (-76 F) and air pressures (1% sea level) are similar to those on Mars. At the flight's peak, it was above 99% of the Earth's atmosphere and the Starfleet captains were the second highest "people" in the world, behind only the astronauts on the International Space Station.

We got extremely lucky with weather. It was supposed to rain and be overcast, but instead it was clear skies and sunshine. Blisteringly hot, but with clear skies; so it was hard to complain. We also got very lucky with a calm jet stream. Normally, the lateral drift for high-altitude balloons requires driving over 100 miles for recovery. Not so on this day; we only drove 25.

Picard and Kirk still have about 20,000 more light years to go, but this is a start. It wouldn't surprise me if a few hundred years from now, there are actually captains named Picard and Kirk sailing throughout the galaxy on *real* starships. Because, after all, reality is what we make it. Had it not been for Gene Roddenberry's creation of Star Trek and him naming the series' flag starship "Enterprise," it's doubtful NASA would have called one of their Space Shuttles "Enterprise." And as one StarTrek.com reader, David Richards, commented, there was once a young real journalist named Picard that was assigned to the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier just so his assigning officer could say he sent Picard to the USS Enterprise. It's hardly inconceivable some people will change their name to Picard or Kirk when the age of starships begins.

Imagination is at the foundation of all future reality. Considering that, it's not so crazy to think that the world we see in Star Trek may someday soon become a reality.

In the famous words of Captain Picard, "Make it so."

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What's Next with Send Picard and Kirk To Space?

● Max Schlickenmeyer (our DP) is hard at work editing the final video that will eternally capture Picard and Kirk's historic flight. As soon as it's complete, StarTrek.com will post it. In the meantime, check out the Discovery Channel episode. Please note that better-quality footage of Picard in space will be in the video we will post.

Max Schlickenmeyer is responsible for the three-million-hit YouTube video called "The Most Astounding Fact" with voiceover by Neil deGrasse Tyson. If you haven't seen it yet, you should watch it right now. I heard that Neil is even referencing this video in his speeches now.

● I'll soon be taking a trip to LA to hand deliver the action figures that flew to the edge of space to their real-life counterparts. I'll meet with Jonathan Frakes (Riker), Brent Spiner (Data), J.J. Abrams and Roberto Orci to hand over their freshly space-inducted action figures.

*We just sent Picard and Kirk into space. But something big that will completely dwarf it is happening next! To stay in the loop and hear about it before everyone else, click HERE.

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