VIDEO: Shorewood man captures Grand Canyon from space

Hobbyist and Nat Geo filmmaker adventure in the Southwest, stratosphere

Feb. 6, 2014

Shorewood — From the edge of space, even the Grand Canyon looks small.

At an altitude equal to three times the height of Mount Everest, John Flaig of Shorewood shot photos and video from his homemade weather balloon, capturing breathtaking vistas from the furthest reaches of the atmosphere.

Flaig, 39, a programmer by day, is one of few amateur weather balloon photographers in the country, and a pioneer of the burgeoning hobby.

So much so that he is the subject of a recently released National Geographic micro-documentary. The roughly four-minute film follows the trip that he and adventure filmmaker J.J. Kelley took as they launched a gadget-laden balloon last Thanksgiving to capture stratospheric shots of the Grand Canyon:

Kelley, a 32-year-old Wisconsin native, has traveled the world in pursuit of amazing adventure footage. He said he and National Geographic both jumped at the chance to document Flaig's near-space pastime.

"It's exciting for you as a filmmaker when you find someone like John, because he lives and breathes it," Kelley said. "... It really is this beautiful convergence of adventure and science and art."

They got more adventure than they bargained for when Kelley, his girlfriend and Flaig set out on a four-day trek to shoot the footage.

They launched the balloon from Espee Ranch in Arizona on Thanksgiving Day, watching it float into a clear blue sky. The plan was for the balloon to quickly reach its apex, then burst due to the low atmospheric pressure. Its payload, tethered to a parachute, would fall safely down, landing near the Grand Canyon.

But due to an impurity in the helium Flaig used, the balloon rose slowly, got caught in a jet stream, and reach its apex somewhere over southern Utah. Hours after launch, the balloon's on-board GPS lost signal and Flaig's tracker winked out.

That's how they found themselves eating a very somber meal at a Denny's on a Navajo reservation in Arizona.

"It wasn't the most jovial Thanksgiving dinner I've ever had," Kelley recalls.

Flaig kept refreshing the tracker app on his iPad, hoping the signal would return, which it did after the balloon burst and the payload fell from the uppermost 1 percent of the stratosphere.

"But I was shocked," Flaig said, "because it was coming from Colorado."

Instead of quickly rising and falling over the Grand Canyon, the balloon had stayed aloft for seven hours, traveling 300 miles, before coming down in the middle of San Juan National Forest at the base of the Rocky Mountains.

So they set out the next day and traversed a 1,000-foot elevation through a foot of snow to recover the payload and its trove of photos and video.

The video went live on the National Geographic website and YouTube on Tuesday, quickly garnering tens of thousands of hits. Parts of the "micro-doc" have aired on national news broadcasts, and Flaig may end up on the "Today" Show. Flaig and Kelley said they might attempt a full-length documentary on launches at a variety of locales, as well as a pictorial book.

"I've gotten a lot of comments from people saying, 'We want more,'" Flaig said. "... It's been kind of a frenetic couple days."

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