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The only way is up! A Scottish engineer and an American web developer decide to put a rocket into space! It almost sounds like the start to a bad joke, but this is how the current iteration of a project called ISON was born.

ISON is a joint American/British voluntary aerospace project, which is operated by a group of professionals who range from web developers to engineers. This project aims to launch a rocket from a high altitude launch platform at an altitude of 70,500ft (21.5km). The rocket is expected to enter space by breaking through the Karman line and reaching an altitude of at least 328,000ft (100km).

ISON is not only about launching a rocket into space. It has another, perhaps more important objective, which is to inspire the next generation of explorers, innovators and dreamers.

Around May of last year, I noticed an unusual project on Kickstarter called ISON. This project was created by a group of die hard space enthusiasts; ISON's then primary goal was to launch a ground-based rocket to an altitude of over 100km. This Project instantly grabbed my attention, it brought me back to my childhood dreams of space travel and I knew then that this was something that I needed to support.

Sadly the initial Kickstarter fundraiser was unsuccessful, but the dream was far from over, in fact it only had just begun. I was greatly honoured by becoming a member of the ISON team, but little did I know that soon my skills would be used by managing the British team on this project.

Jamey Erickson is the project leader for ISON. He has previously created two successful high altitude weather balloon projects called Bespin and Yavin IV, of which Bespin managed to capture images of the Earth from an altitude of over 100,000ft (30.5km). The other members of the American team include Andy Kvamme, our liaison with the Hack Factory, John Heimkes, adviser/test coordinator and Dan Showers, who is heading the design of the rocket.

Evolution of a design ISON 2.0

The original concept was of a 10lb (4.5kg) rocket with an internal camera, suspended by a series of balloons. At that stage we were not aiming to get a rocket into space but were aiming to reach an altitude in excess of 150,000ft.

As an engineer, I saw a variety of difficulties with this concept. After a few hours and several gallons of coffee, the Trident configuration was conceived. This was a three armed structure which would employ six, 3000gm weather balloons, each of which would have a lift capacity of 3kg. These balloons would be tethered directly above the structure. Additional lift capacity could be achieved by the inclusion of further weather balloons fitted between each of the arms.

However, like most things that are worth doing in life, things were never that simple. The mission objectives changed. Instead of using a 10lb rocket, we were now to use a 60lb rocket which would be capable of reaching space, but not obtaining orbital velocity.

The Trident configuration would have to evolve to meet the new mission criteria, and so a five arm variant called Dream Catcher was conceived. This structure would utilise fifteen, 3000gm weather balloons.

At 70,500ft, the altitude at which we will launch the rocket, the weather balloons will expand to around 25 feet. In order to reduce both the size and consequently the weight of the launch platform we will stagger the height of these balloons.

At this altitude, environmental conditions will present a challenge to various components such as the electronics; we must consider the ambient temperature which will be approximately -56.5[degrees]C. The atmospheric pressure will be approximately 44.4 mb (millibars), compared to 1013.25 mb at sea level. Because of this a special ignition system for the rocket must be constructed and an integrated 14 feet launch rail system developed, to provide initial guidance and stability for the rocket.

It was at this point that I realised that I did not have the capacity to completely design this new structure, as well as manage the British team. For the good of the project I decided to bring two highly skilled mechanical engineers onto the team. They are Richard Sewell who will lead the structures design, with Yasiin Kotowaroo, providing assistance.

Apart from launching a rocket, the launch platform will also host additional equipment ranging from cameras to air temperature sensors. This will be designed by Douglas Evans, who I previously worked with on the British Council project 'Monroe 1'. All recorded data and images will be released publicly for free, to encourage people to take an interest in STEM subjects.

The team is organised into a pseudo company, where everyone has roles and responsibilities, in an effort to reduce excessive workloads for individuals as well as prevent work from being duplicated. We have a good exchange of ideas between all members of this project. Regular meetings are scheduled between the British and American team.

Once the final design has been submitted, it will then be manufactured by The Hack Factory. This is a non-profit organisation located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which encourages the local community to learn and take a hands-on approach to engineering.

Engineers and enthusiasts alike will come together to manufacture ISON, before it is shipped off to the launch destination. We are in talks to launch from the Mojave Desert, and possibly from a location within Europe.


In my view, one of the greatest failings of engineering is its inability to clearly express its objectives to the general public, without swamping them in 'technobabble'.

It may be of interest for an engineer to hear the detailed technical specifications of a device, but to the general public this is not only of no interest, it will actively discourage some of them from engineering, as well as the sciences.

To counter this, one of our main aims is to help promote the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. We aim to achieve this by providing regular updates to our blog which will filter out the heavily technical elements of our project, so most people can understand what is happening, presenting our data with pictures and media, instead of a wall of text.

At present I have contacted various STEM bodies throughout the UK, and hope that they will get on board with us and use ISON as a vessel to reach out to people and encourage people to take an interest in science and engineering.


Because of the lofty ambitions of this project, in particular with reaching out to the public, we have had to ask for help from various volunteers, such as, but not limited to, Dundee Photographic Society for their help with pictures of Dundee, and Chris Harrison and the team from the Planetfall movie for their help in promoting ISON.

ISON, will also be working alongside Project Mobility charity which helps disabled veterans by enabling them to build and race rally cars. Project Mobility will assist ISON by providing transport and aiding in the design of the launch platform ground retaining mechanism, which will dock with and secure the launch platform safely to the ground, whilst its weather balloons are being inflated.

ISON wants you!

Because of the nature of this project, we are not only pushing boundaries but we have many non-technical obstacles to overcome. John Evans, our lawyer, is currently trying to secure grants and sponsorships for this project.

ISON is not solely about its team members, it is also a community event. We want you to be with us and share our in achievements. Be part of it by using our pictures in your presentations, or by helping to fund us. Our project can be your project.

So, if a Scotsman and an American send a rocket into space, will you be on board?

ISON is not only about launching a rocket into space, its objective is to inspire the next generation of explorers, innovators and dreamers.

The team is organised into a pseudo company where everyone has roles and responsibilities, in an effort to reduce excessive workloads for individuals as well as prevent work from being duplicated.

About the Author

David Evans lives in Dundee and is currently studying for a second degree in engineering with the Open University. Apart from pursuing his own designs, he is currently taking time out to be involved with several other projects which include organising a fundraising campaign for Project Mobility, as well as working to promote engineering to the general public.
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Author:Evans, David
Publication:Engineering Designer
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 1, 2013
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