The GTA’S rocket men

Lo­cal teens be­come in­ter­na­tional stars with aero­nau­tic ad­ven­ture

The Kids Post - - Kids Feature - By Caro­line Ak­sich

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

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