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Watch: Atlanta Students Send Coke Can to Space

By:  Jay Moye Sep 23, 2013
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Coca-Cola has made its share of trips to outer space over the years, but its first-ever voyage via weather balloon came just a few months ago.

In May, Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy’s science and engineering club embarked on a challenge: to send a Coke can to the edge of the atmosphere and post a video of the experiment on YouTube. The school, revered across the state as an athletics powerhouse, wanted to be equally known for its achievements in the classroom and the lab.

“When they told me they wanted to send a camera to space, I knew I was in,” says Ted Neill, a Georgia State University MBA student. He volunteers at the school primarily as an AP English tutor, but hearing countless economists stress the importance of a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education piqued the former CARE USA employee’s interest in the project.

Neill met with the five middle- and high-school students every week for the entire school year to plan the mission and design and build the capsule. The club launched an online crowd-funding campaign and raised $800, enough to support two attempts in case the first one failed. 

Their “space capsule” was made using a Styrofoam container. Inside, a thermos insulated a GPS-enabled cell phone to protect it from the sub-zero temperatures it would encounter. A digital video camera pointed at an outstretched can of Coca-Cola, which was fastened to a ruler and a small strip of plexiglass.

The plan was to send the capsule up to an elevation of 100,000 feet, where the helium weather balloon would burst and deploy a parachute to bring it back down to earth.

Everything appeared to be on track post-liftoff, as the balloon climbed and eventually disappeared through the clouds. The GPS device malfunctioned at some point along the way, however, so the students couldn’t track the capsule’s location. After several weeks of no word, they assumed it was lost.

“They were pretty bummed,” Neill said.

The club was preparing for a second launch in August when Neill got a call from a man in Oglethorpe, Ga., about 90 miles east of the launch site. He’d found the capsule in his field, tattered and torn but with the camera still intact, and offered to mail it back.

But when the package arrived at the Duluth, Ga. post office, it was considered suspicious.

“I got a call from federal agents and had to explain it was a weather balloon,” Neill said. “They asked me to come pick it up right away.”

The package triggered a second scare before Neill could get there. Once he arrived, he took the chip out of the camera and popped it into his laptop as a few curious postal workers hovered over his shoulder. And it worked; the entire voyage had been captured on video.

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

“They were glad to get rid of it,” Neill said, laughing. “I’d caused them enough headaches.”

The students watched the footage later that week and were ecstatic. The teachers were even more excited.

“You should’ve seen them,” recalls Patrice Francis, the school’s headmistress. “We were in a staff meeting, and everyone was asking to pull the computer closer so they could get a better look.”

An edited version of the video was posted online earlier this month and has since gained more than 1,000 views. Stressing that the school is no one-hit wonder when it comes to science, Francis said the project is the latest in a string of recent STEM-related achievements. Earlier this year, Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy hosted the inaugural celebration of Georgia STEM Day and continues to turn heads at regional robotics competitions.

“We’re always excited about opportunities to stimulate our students and keep them motivated to do things that do not limit their imaginations,” she said. “And sending a Coke can to outer space is a pretty good way to prove there are no limits.”