Paper Airplane Launched into Space

Until now, paper planes have basically been flown in schoolrooms and offices. Sometimes the flight ends in trouble for the would-be aeronautical engineer.

But now a milestone in paper airplane flight technology has been achieved: the first paper airplane to reach space.

The greatest flight ever achieved by a paper airplane started with the dream of a band of British space fans. They brainstormed how to get an engine-less paper airplane into the lofty realms where angels tread and sometimes astronauts.

Deciding to “reinvigorate” Britain’s flagging space program (were you even aware the UK had one?), the team—Steve Daniels, from Devon, John Oates, of The Register website, and Lester Haines—hit upon the idea of launching their plane with a high-altitude balloon. the idea had its advantages because it saves mightily on fuel, materials and support facilities, such as a launch pad for instance.

Although made of paper, the plane had a lot of hi-tech input. The British defense technology company Qinetiq worked with London-based newspaper, The Register on the project. The original idea for the historic attempt came from the readership of The Register. Code-named PARIS (an acronym for Paper Aircraft Released Into Space), the total cost of the project came to almost $13,000.

Team member Oates, a 39-year old Londoner, told the congratulatory press, “We were looking for something fun to do and the readers came up with the idea of the paper plane.”

All the technology was produced with the help of The Register readership and Qinetiq. Tracking systems, pocket warmers to keep the cameras from freezing, and other devices were adapted to perform the feat. Both Vulture 1 and the balloon had electronic transponders.

After considering several sites for the historic launch, the team chose Spain. The Spanish countryside they chose, sparsely populated and mostly desolate, was the perfect spot to attempt retrieval.

The paper glider took a year to design and construct. Paper straws make up the ribbed fuselage and 3-foot wings of the little airplane giving it surprising rigidity. The outside is covered with paper.  

The helium balloon carried two cameras and the plane—named “Vulture 1—to an altitude of 90,000 feet before the balloon expanded and exploded. After release, Vulture 1 safely glided down to Earth on a 90-minute flight. The remains of the balloon, the intact cameras, and the victorious Vulture 1, were found about 23 miles from the launch site. All were in good condition. The Vulture 1 only suffered a tiny hole in one of its wings.

The photos and video recorded by the ascent launch balloon were called stunning.

The team was relieved. Some had speculated that the plane might be caught by high winds aloft and be carried hundreds of miles away.

After the successful retrieval, a grinning Oates admitted to reporters that “I thought they would take a good few days to find.”


Vulture 1 logo

Vulture 1 in its transport box

Launch of PARIS Vulture 1

This is what space looks like from a paper airplane

Video: “Paper plane launched into space captures Earth images”