June 1, 2012 at 4:57 PM ET
They're action figures rather than real actors, and it's the stratosphere rather than outer space — nevertheless, it was a bold stroke to gather funding from Kickstarter contributors to send the captains from the Star Trek saga toward the heavens. The payoff from more than $6,000 in contributions is on view in this video from the Discovery Channel's "Daily Planet" program.
A team of engineering students from the University of Illinois, captained by Logan Kugler and Shannon Downey, pulled off the high-altitude balloon stunt on May 5. More than 150 folks contributed $6,193 through the Kickstarter website. As a result, the "Send Picard to Space" venture sent up an action-figure away team that included not only "Next Generation" Captain Jean-Luc Picard, but Riker and Data plus James T. Kirk and custom-made dolls representing "Star Trek" filmmakers J.J. Abrams and Roberto Orci.
The 90-minute flight brought the balloon-borne spaceships and their crews, as well as six HD video cameras, up to a height of about 100,000 feet before the balloon popped and the apparatus fell back to Earth for recovery. The Discovery Channel spot aired last month, and a follow-up video is being put together by Kugler's team.
In an account written for StarTrek.com, Kugler says he'll soon hand-deliver the balloon-flown action figures to their real-life counterparts in Los Angeles. "Picard and Kirk still have about 20,000 more light-years to go, but this is a start," Kugler wrote.
Balloon-enabled flights to the 100,000-foot region of the stratosphere, known as "near-space," are becoming almost routine. Such flights don't rise anywhere near as high as true spacecraft such as SpaceShipOne or the SpaceX Dragon. The internationally accepted boundary of outer space is more than three times as high: 100 kilometers, or 328,000 feet. But even at the 100,000-foot level, you get an impressive view of the earth below and the black sky of space above. For another example of the genre, check out this "First Tent in Space" video, produced last month to publicize Scotland's Vango AirBeam tents. Then click on the links below.
More near-space adventures:
Update for 12:35 a.m. ET June 2: To get the full picture, you should check out Kugler's photo essay for StarTrek.com.
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.