Video: Redwood Sapling Goes to Space


NEXTies Space Tree: A Santa Cruz redwood's unlikely 50-mile journey into the earth's atmosphere. Video below.

Story by Hilltromper staff. Photos by Darren Odden.

May 14, 2014—The idea to attach a newly sprouted redwood tree to a large helium balloon and send it up into space over Monterey Bay with a GoPro camera for company did not come to Matthew Swinnerton all at once. There were stages, serendipitous developments, suggestions from accomplices. A gradual descent into the madness, you might say, culminating two weeks ago with Swinnerton on a fishing boat in the Pacific looking for a lost redwood sapling in a bottle and, against all odds, finding it.

In between, checks had to be written, balloons and equipment ordered, permission secured from the FAA (easy) and the city of Santa Cruz (less easy). On April 30, on the top floor of the Locust Street parking garage, the team fit a small sequoia sempervirens into a halved water bottle, put handwarmers around the roots, and taped the bottle back up (for protection against the chill of space and the saltwater landing). Then they affixed the bottle to a wooden plank, along with a stack of VHS videotapes on the other end for a counterbalance ("because that's all they're good for") and a launch kit outfitted with GPS device and GoPro camera. They inflated the balloon, attached it to the plank and stood back to watch it lift off into the blue, where it steadily ascended for about 90 minutes before reaching the border between Earth's mesosphere and thermosphere, 50 miles high.

The result is a video edited by Compass Rose Media and released today. It shows the team assembling the contraption and releasing it, and then moves to the most serene, and surreal, footage of a bottled tree as it rises and the Monterey Bay below it shrinks. The Big Sur and San Francisco coastlines come into view. The curvature of Earth appears, along with the snow-capped Sierra Nevada, and the atmosphere darkens as the tree nears the thermosphere, the zone where satellites cruise. What comes up comes down, and the chaotic fall (not sped up!) and surprising return to the earth's surface make for dramatic YouTubage. The story of the NEXTies Space Tree continues below video.

Why Send A Redwood Into Space?

The tale begins in 2012 with a video of a guy sending his son's Stanley train into space. When Swinnerton, the affable marketing impresario behind TechRaising and Event Santa Cruz, saw it, he took note. "I thought, I'm going to use that to promote something someday. I was just waiting for the right thing to come along."

The "right thing" materialized when Santa Cruz Next approached Swinnerton about producing this year's NEXTies, which honor young entrepreneurs and civic-minded game-changers in town. Bingo. Swinnerton had his Send Something to Space project.

But what? Something Santa Cruzey. There were confabs with the team at Compass Rose Media, who would provide the necessary nerdpower to pull this feat off. A surfboard? A NEXTie trophy? As Swinnerton recalls, Compass Rose Media owner Steve Weisser came up with the winning suggestion: a redwood. The 2014 NEXTies tagline came soon after: "New Growth. New Heights." It worked perfectly with this year's theme of fresh talent—folks in their 20s and 30s. (Scroll to the bottom to learn more about this year's NEXTies, held May 30.)

Fifty Miles High

That decided, Swinnerton gathered a launch kit, which included a GPS device for tracking altitude and whereabouts upon landing, and a big balloon. It took two months to get the permits in order. They also had to get a tree. And the entire thing—plank, tree, kit, cameras—could not weigh more than four pounds, per FAA rules. Swinnerton’s plan to stow away R2-D2 and C-3PO in the launch kit for his son (take that, Stanley Train Dad!) was nearly scuttled.

Then there was weather. A week before launch Swinnerton checked weather and wind and prepared himself for the worst. After reentry the tree could land anywhere in the general area. One Internet-based piece of software indicated it would land in Pinnacles. Lord knows where they’d be driving to pick it up.

Amazingly, on the day of the deed, it did not drift over to Pinnacles. It stayed, like a well-trained dog, perfectly positioned above scenic, recognizable Monterey Bay.

“There’s never been a video of Monterey Bay like this,” Swinnerton says. “The Compass Rose folks were saying they don’t know of any video shot from this height. And it was amazing that it stayed in the Monterey Bay area the whole time.”

How Does A Redwood Tree Return from Space?

In the video, the popping of the balloon looks like a lightning storm. The NEXTies Space Tree plummets crazily back toward Earth with nothing to slow its descent in the upper atmosphere. Later it slows down and drifts down on wind currents, with the whole reentry taking 45 minutes (well, condensed into a minute or so). The video shows it splashing gently into the sea.

One more pain in the kiester awaited Swinnerton and his crew at that point: finding it using signals from the launch kit’s electronics. Off they headed to the harbor and a ride in a fishing boat toward who knew where; the boat’s GPS wasn’t working so well. After the team switched to their phones, a confusing hour or so later, things became clearer and they made it to the general vicinity of the NEXTies Space Tree. At a point about 10 miles out from the Boardwalk, they were drifting, squinting out across the water in hopes of seeing a yellow launch kit, tattered off-white balloon and clear plastic bottle stuffed with a tree. “I was stressed,” says Swinnerton. “We were going in circles, like a one-mile radius.”

Weirdly, Swinnerton found it, a glimpse of yellow bobbing in the waves. The boat approached. The video shows that, too.

The rest is happy history. Swinnerton’s hope for the video is a marketer’s dream.

“Yes, it is a full publicity stunt,” he says cheerfully. “All I’m using it for is to go viral and hope people will buy tickets to the NEXTies. 'New Growth, New Heights.' The young little sapling has already been in space, and now it comes back down and plants its roots in Santa Cruz.”

Where will the NEXTies Space Tree be planted? Stay tuned — Hilltromper just might have more to say on that subject. Meanwhile, don't you have tickets to buy?

The Santa Cruz NEXTies happens Friday, May 30 at 7pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave, Santa Cruz. Tickets $40 online at or $50 at the door.


Field Notes

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Here's another kind of redwood launch - a new history journal about logging and conservation of the redwoods in our Santa Cruz Mountains.
Check out the long article from the Hilltromper himself (Eric Johnson) which profiles the farsighted woodsmen of Big Creek lumber company.