Programmer from Gardnerville sets sights on stratosphere |

Programmer from Gardnerville sets sights on stratosphere

Teri Vance
Nevada Appeal Staff Writer

What started out as a hobby for Steve Schlaifer could turn into a revolutionary invention.

Schlaifer, who worked as a computer programmer for 30 years with Jet Propulsion Laboratories, wanted to see if he could actually make some of the tools he’d written software for.

So he enrolled in a machine tool technology class at Western Nevada College in Carson City.

“I’d always wanted to learn how to use the machine tools,” he said. “I just started taking the classes for grins.”

But as he became more proficient, he became more ambitious.

For the past 10 to 15 years, he’s worked part-time for Global Aerospace Corp., and they’ve been discussing the possibility of designing a sort of wing that could control the direction of high-altitude balloons.

The balloons generally reach up to 100,000 feet ” just this side of outer space ” and are most widely used to collect information from the upper atmosphere about the weather.

However, with better control of the balloons, Schlaifer believes, they could be used in place of satellites to collect accurate readings of atmospheric pressure and in communication technology.

A wing, or stratosail, attached to the balloon but hanging 30 feet below would pick up a different wind velocity, Schlaifer and his colleagues concluded, and could be used to more accurately direct the balloon.

As the discussions evolved, Schlaifer volunteered to make a scale model of the wing.

“It looked like an interesting project to do,” he said. “I did it because it sounded like fun in some twisted sense of the word.”

He expects to have the model stratosail completed in the next couple of weeks as part of his third-level machine tool technology class.

The next step will be to test the prototype in a wind tunnel in Southern California.

Schlaifer, 59, and his wife, Joan, moved to Gardnerville in 2005 from Pasadena, Calif.

“We love it,” he said. “Moving from the big city and all the crowds to a small town where people are friendly.”

But small-town life hasn’t limited the scope of his ideas.

“It’s one of the things that the shop at WNC provides is the ability to come up with innovations and work on them on your own,” he said. “I’m hoping that the budget doesn’t kill that.”

– Contact reporter Teri Vance at or 881-1272.