Fermynwoods Friday 21 – Space Programme

In 2016 students from The CE Academy embarked on a sculpture-based project that was literally out of this world – Fermynwoods Space Programme. For this weeks Fermynwoods Friday, sculptor Clare Abbatt recounts one of our favourite education projects.

Sudborough Green Lodge, ‘the cottages’, is situated on the edge of a meadow of Special Scientific Interest, surrounded by woodland. Here Fermynwoods’ dedicated staff work with visiting artists on a weekly programme with pupils from The CE Academy, which provides alternative education for young people who are excluded from mainstream school.

Fermynwoods encourage the students to think creatively and aspire to spark their imaginations. Engagement is key. Fermynwoods wants the students to aim high and surprise themselves by their achievements. In July 2016 Fermynwoods Space Programme did just that.

James Steventon devised the ambitious project to launch small sculptures made by the students into space using a weather balloon. When the students were first told about the opportunity they were dubious, but once they realised James wasn’t joking excitement took over.

As a sculptor who has worked on Fermynwoods Alternative Education programme before, James invited me to lead on the sculpture-based part of the activity. From the very beginning the technical nature of the project meant calculations had to be made; from monitoring weather conditions, to limiting the weight of the sculptures on the payload to not exceed 300 grams. Given the interstellar aspirations I felt it was important that the sculptures were made of clay, a material of the earth. Students duly weighed out carefully measured portions of clay and ten individual figures were sculpted, each representing how the students might wish to be viewed as representatives of earth. Once fired, they were painted with thermochromic paints, kindly supplied by Oliver Dredge at SFXC.

On the morning of each flight, near space photographer Chris Hillcox arrived with the weather balloon, gas tanks and the payload fitted with camera and GPS trackers. Cameraman Martin Steed supplied even more technology, working with the students to film and live stream the launch and to interview Chris. The students helped to take responsibility for different tasks. In addition to the technical jobs of importance, Chris had brought two of his young children along and our students surprised us by caring for and playing with the children beautifully while we were arranging flight clearance from local airfields.

Everyone held their breath as the very large weather balloon was inflated with helium, followed by a countdown before the balloon rose rapidly. We watched it until it disappeared into the clouds to continue its journey beyond air space to 90,000 ft and the edge of the earth’s atmosphere (where the temperature is around minus 40 degrees C). As the temperature dropped the thermochromic paints changed colour, all captured by the onboard camera.

After students tracked the flight path online, the sculptures continued to rise, continuing their journey beyond the end of the school day. Eventually the change in pressure caused the balloon to burst and the payload of sculptures, camera and technology returned to earth with a parachute. Chris and James followed the flight path by car, finally picking up the payload. One launch landed 50 miles away near Kings Lynn, the other near Royston. The sculptures were entirely intact and would be reunited with their owners the following week where we would review the onboard footage.

Fermynwoods was successful in achieving the first space flight of this kind in Northamptonshire, literally expanding students’ horizons. One student celebrated her birthday on the day of the first flight. A day she will always remember.

Clare Abbatt

This project was kindly supported by Green Energy.

Look out for more Fermynwoods Friday posts each week looking back on some of our favourite projects.