On September 29, 2009 a group of MIT students stuffed a camera and a GPS phone into a small styrofoam cooler and attached it to a weather balloon. It went to roughly 100,000 feet and took some nice pictures. The balloon popped and it fell back to the surface, where the students located the package via text messages from the phone containing its GPS coordinates.
The pictures set the internet ablaze and provided the motivation for my idea; in like fashion, I would send up an LCD screen to display logos and advertisements, all with the Earth in the background. This is the story of what happened.
John Hargave, a pioneer in online comedy, and I struck up deal to do the first "prank in space". The idea was to send up a balloon with a giant LED sign displaying the URL of his now defunct www.zug.com website. At the same time, I would have an LCD display (from an old keychain picture viewer) that would display various advertisements and logos to explore an obvious but yet untested business model.
So the device would have two cameras. One looking at the ZUG.COM sign and the other at my LCD.
Launch & Recovery
The launch went without a hitch. The weather was perfect. It took about two hours for the payload to ascend to ~ 80,000 feet before the balloon burst. It took about 30 minutes to fall. It came down in a tree about 15 feet high. Once we got the pictures, it was very disappointing. I had assumed (based upon a comment from the MIT guys) that it was going to be a bit darker 'up there'. This was not true. My displays were not bright enough. Plus there was not enough current being supplied to the displays. I'm assuming this was due to the extreme cold (about 50 degrees below zero) crippling the batteries.
FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION
In order to easily locate the vehicle when it was back on the ground, I had installed an endless loop of Rick Astleys "Never Gonna Give You Up" aka the rickroll song. It worked well - we knew we were close when we heard the song. So after the disappointing images, someone, and I don't remember who, but someone said:
"Did we just rickroll the Earth?"
This birthed the second attempt. Another launch would be made. But this time the electronic displays would be replaced with still images. One camera would take pictures of the ZUG.COM sign while the other would take video of the an image of Rick Astley. It would become "The First Rickroll in Space".
And the rest is history.
NBC Los Angeles