Made by hand: A view from space and a perch on a mountain

Jeff Severns Guntzel
Senior reporter
Public Insight Network

The view from a homemade high-altitude balloon at about 90,000 feet above western Indiana. (Image shared by Olivier Balthazard)

The sociologist Richard Sennett says we make things because it gives us a sense of place in the world. I felt an intense sense of place — if only vicariously — through two images sent in by Public Insight Network sources who responded to my query, “I made this! Here’s why…

Olivier Balthazard, an industrial engineer living in Chicago, made a high-altitude balloon. Attached to the balloon was a small box, weighing about two pounds, filled with sensors, a homemade micro processor and cameras for snapping pictures as the balloon soared to an altitude of 100,000 feet and traveled more than 100 miles from its launch point.

Why did he make it? “Because it feels good to explore,” Balthazard said. “Exploring is what humans are all about. Space, near space in my case, is still the next frontier. And it is still a largely unexplored playground. We ought to spend much more time, money and energy getting up there.

“It is also very fun engineering issue: How to make a small, lightweight automatic system that will survive for five hours at extreme temperatures and will keep on communicating with us from launch until landing.”

“Exploring is what humans are all about.” – Olivier Balthazard

The small cabin Mark van Roojen and his wife, Jennifer, built near the Continental Divide in Wyoming. (Photo shared by Mark van Roojen)

Mark van Roojen is a philosophy professor in Lincoln, Neb., where he’s been building things like guitars, work benches and jewelry boxes for years. His biggest project, which he undertook with his wife, Jennifer, was a small timber-frame cabin along the Continental Divide near Encampment, Wyo. He made most of the frame parts in his backyard and assembled them on his small parcel of mountain forest land, which he’d bought with a small inheritance after his mother died.

“She had had Alzheimer’s for a good long time,” he told us. “For her last five years, I was responsible for her care. Not in our home, but seeing to it that she could remain in her hometown for as long as possible. It was draining. I partly sustained myself with fantasies of building a cabin in the woods where I could rest and write.”

It took him six years to complete the cabin, which measures just 10 by 14 feet with a 6-foot porch. The interior woodwork is from local pine that had been killed by beetles. “It’s off the grid,” van Roojen said, “so I had to put together a solar powered electrical system. It has a wood stove and propane heat. I’m working on a gravity-fed hot water system to supplement the drinking water tank.”

The roads to his land are only open five months out of the year, and they’re closed right now. But he is clearly driven by the sense of place sociologist Sennett speaks of. “It’s a six-mile ski or snowshoe trip to get to it,” van Roojen says. “I plan to make that trip later in December and meet up with a friend who also has a cabin about a mile from mine.”

You can see a couple other great things people built and told us about. And you can help us with our next story, designed for the end of the year, by telling us: What was the biggest change you went through in 2012?