The GTA’S rocket men
Local teens become international stars with aeronautic adventure
The winter before last, the Internet erupted with coverage of two teenagers from the GTA who sent a Canadian flag−holding Lego man into the stratosphere. Matthew Ho and Asad Muhammad, both 17 at the time, were in their final year in high school when the video they made of their just-for-fun project went viral.
News agencies around the world — from Nigeria to India — picked up the story of the duo that spent their weekends building “Lego Man in Space” with a budget of $400 and parts sourced from craigslist. The teens ( now 19) stirred up such a hubbub that a Transport Canada spokesperson urged people not to engage in copycat projects, fearing the resulting onslaught of spacedirected balloons might disrupt air traffic.
Last September, Ho took off for the University of British Columbia to study commerce, while Muhammad has continued to pursue aeronautics and has finished the first year of a two-year aircraft-maintenance program at Centennial College. “Every time you touch an airplane you get rewarded right away, when it takes off, because you just fixed it and it took off,” says Muhammad.
Muhammad has had an unbridled enthusiasm for aeronautics since he was kneehigh. He can’t pinpoint where his interest sprouted from (neither of his parents are in the industry), but Muhammad thinks growing up next to an airbase in Karachi, Pakistan, may have had some influence on him.
Since graduating from high school the twosome has been separated by 4,000 kilometres, but that distance hasn’t stymied their plans to conquer near space. After sending up their original balloon, Ho and Muhammad have sent up another four (two of which failed to reach the stratosphere).
Their first launch was constructed with second-hand cameras and a cellphone used as a GPS tracker, all of which was housed in a Styrofoam box. The camera — which had to be a Canon because they can be programmed to take photos continuously — was pointed at the pint-sized Lego man, which stood proudly at the end of a Lego gangplank, holding a Canadian flag. They documented the 97minute journey with photos that were taken every 15 seconds and then cut the footage together (there were 1,500 photos in total) and posted it on YouTube — today the video of the 24-kilometre high flight has had more than three million views. The amazing feat even inspired Canadian writer and illustrator Mara Shaughnessy to pen a kids’ book, Lego Man in Space, about the adventure.
After the media mania that resulted from the pair’s extracurricular astro-project, both Canon and Lego reached out to them. Lego gave them a 3,000piece set, called the Star Destroyer, and Canon gave them a Vixia HF M300 camera.
Last January, Ho and Muhammad embarked on sending the Star Destroyer, which they had superglued together, up to the edge of the stratosphere. They repurposed the hand-stitched parachute from their first launch and bought two weather balloons (to their knowledge, no one else has ever tried to send something up with two balloons). It took 650 cubic feet of helium to send the sizable contraption up. And yes, they mounted their brand new Canon camera onto the apparatus to film the earth’s curvature for what they hoped would be the second time.
“I was freaking out a little about our second launch because it was so big,” says Muhammad, who contacted Transport Canada and told them about their plans.
Unfortunately, the jet stream ripped the parachute and camera housing off, which meant that once the balloons popped in near space there was no way for the Star Destroyer to survive the fall back to earth. A week after the Star Destroyer debacle, the twosome tried to launch a consolation Darth Vader Lego figure, but the winds dramatically changed at the last second and blew the Sith Lord into Georgian Bay.
A few weeks ago they launched their final two balloons, both succeeded. One was a Lego Superman suspended with fishing wire, which gives the impression that the figure’s actually flying into the stratosphere.
Their final launch was a cut-out photo of Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, in celebration of the stars’ fifth anniversary. Ho and Muhammad have declared their joint retirement from balloon launching, but this final launch really shows off the marriage of Ho’s marketing strength with Muhammad’s aeronautics prowess.
We won’t be surprised to see their final triumph aired on The Ellen DeGeneres Show later this month. Something tells us that their YouTube hits are about to skyrocket.
Watch out for an appearance by Asad and Matthew on ‘The Ellen DeGeneres Show’ later this month