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Gemini capsule launched on a string

JP Aerospace

A 2-inch-long paper model of a 1960s-era Gemini capsule hangs from a string in front of a camera mounted on a balloon-borne platform at an altitude of more than 97,000 feet. Meanwhile, the moon hangs in the far background, sans string.

So what if it's only a paper spaceship? This year marks the 50th anniversary of Project Gemini's christening, and you could regard this small-scale re-creation of a Gemini space mission as a fitting tribute to the times.

The original 19-foot-long Gemini spacecraft was built to accommodate two astronauts for missions that would lay the groundwork for the Apollo missions to the moon. This 2-inch-long Gemini model was built by John's Paper Models and hung from a string during one of JP Aerospace's high-altitude balloon flights in Nevada's Black Rock Desert.

"The model was flown to 97,704 feet on balloon during last month's PongSat mission. 980 student experiments were also flown," John Powell, the founder of JP Aerospace, told me in an email. The California-based venture sends payloads up to the edge of space at the end of a helium-filled balloon, and recovers the payloads after the balloon breaks.

The payloads range from mini-experiments that can fit inside a pingpong ball — hence the name "PongSat" — to the occasional chair or cellphone. These flights don't come anywhere close to the internationally accepted 62-mile (100-kilometer) boundary of outer space, but they do rise high enough to provide exposure to cosmic rays, the near-vacuum of near space and other conditions that can put space hardware to a rigorous test. And as you can see here, the flights provide an awesome view as well.

JP Aerospace

JP Aerospace's "Away 66" mission rises. The tiny model of the Gemini capsule can be seen hanging from the left side of the balloon-borne platform.

Meanwhile, another near-space mission has successfully sent "Star Trek" captains and celebrities into space, at least in miniaturized, plasticized action-figure form. StarTrek.com provides a photo essay chronicling the results of this month's "Send Picard to Space" balloon mission, backed by more than $6,000 in Kickstarter contributions. "The captains and equipment spent two hours aloft, 90 minutes of that in the stratosphere, until the balloon popped and the payload parachuted safely back to Earth," StarTrek.com reported. Stay tuned for the encore presentation. 

More adventures in near space:

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.