That’s because on Saturday morning, a group of software developers sent a helium balloon with a Styrofoam box into outer space from Kandal Province to take photos and video of the Earth above Cambodia.
One surprise of the experiment, they said, was that it was successful.
The Styrofoam spaceship – named “Prah Atit” (which means “the sun” in Khmer) by Long Reaksmey Chhorpon, a 16-year old high school student from Phnom Penh – made its way above the clouds in two hours, snapping photos every five seconds, before falling back down on a parachute about 65 kilometers away in Kampong Speu province.
Cambodia’s first space mission was led by Eduardo Jezierski, the chief technical officer of an NGO called InSTEDD, which is funded by Google and focuses on innovative responses to disasters and epidemics – such as disease reporting by mobile phones.
Jezierski, who is from Argentina, spent less than US$1,000 on equipment for the spaceship, which included importing 6,000 liters of helium from Vietnam – since the gas is not available locally.
A reflector was made out of something that looked like aluminum foil (to make the flying capsule visible to airplanes), and rubber flip-flops and floatable pool toys were attached to prevent the box from sinking if it fell into water.
Although helium balloons with cameras had flown into space before, they had never taken off from Cambodia said Jezierski.
The Cambodian space mission faced some unique local technical challenges, such as minefields, limited road networks and poor cell phone coverage, as well as the fact that much of the land in Cambodia is covered by rice paddies or water, he said.
The developers spent hours, for instance, looking for a bridge that was listed on a Google map but did not really exist – and took an inflatable boat, and a couple of mountain bikes with them just in case.
In the end, however, the boat was not needed because the box – which in addition to two cameras also carried some hand-warmers, a radio receiver, and a note in Khmer requesting villagers to return it if they found it – landed in a tree.
The flight went so well, in fact, that the Canon camera used to take pictures from the box still works after falling back to Earth from high up in the atmosphere.
On Saturday night, the video from Cambodia’s first space flight was screened at Maxine’s Bar (aka Snowie’s) in Phnom Penh during a performance by the band Cambodian Space Project.
The unexpected documentary left the members of the band – the first Cambodian music group to release a vinyl record since 1975 – with a surreal feeling.
“I never thought there’d be a space project (in Cambodia) – not for a very, very long time,” confessed band leader Julien Poulson.
He said that when he got a phone call from someone who wanted to screen a video from Cambodia’s first space voyage, he thought it was a joke.
The band named itself after being inspired by the image of a rocket strapped to the back of a tuk tuk. “We thought it was something absurd,” said guitarist Scott Bywater. “Because it’s not like Cambodia is going to be a leader in the space race.”
Band members are now thinking about using the footage taken by the camera in the Styrofoam box in one of their future music videos, while Jezierski and his team are planning to repeat the flight soon.