March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Student Experiments to See the Edge of Space

Posted: Friday, August 19th, 2016

by Joanne Michael

A view of Southern California from 90,000 feet.

A view of Southern California from 90,000 feet.
Click image for a larger view.

Three years ago, I had a dream- I wanted to work with my students to send a weather balloon with experiments into the edge of space. I had colleagues around the country that had done it with their schools, and I was loving every moment of their stories. Their students were coming up with the experiments, talking with scientists, spending months learning about meteorology, weather patterns, calculating the speed and trajectory- all things that I wanted to have my students experience. Not knowing how to fund it, or really how to do it in the first place, I tried writing grants, getting sponsors, talking to aerospace companies, but came up empty-handed. My school district is located in a very financially wealthy area, and so we do not qualify for many grants. In addition, I teach elementary school (I’m a hands-on science educator, teaching the entire K-5 school), and the majority of grants that my area would allow my to apply for were for middle and high school teachers- not elementary.

This past year, my district’s Education Foundation started a new grant- “Teachers Driving Innovation”, which provided funds for teachers to do out-of-the-box projects and experiences. After applying and winning a grant, 34 students were selected out of the school (1 or 2 students out of every class, and selected by their classroom teacher, to not promote favoritism by me), based on their love of science, personal drive, and ability to work with others.

High Altitude ShotClick image for a larger view.

High Altitude Shot
Click image for a larger view.

If a payload is under 4 pounds, and has no transmitting capabilities (with the exception of radio or GPS communications), the FAA technically can’t “do” anything. However, it is considerably better to let them know of what you are doing if you want to launch in a relatively populated area. Not only is it a pretty easy process, it teaches the students how to go about governmental procedures in an appropriate way, and how different organizations work with each other. Most locations can launch from their school’s field or parking lot without a problem. However, I teach in the direct flight path of LAX- we watched Endeavour land at LAX from our playfield! I was thinking about heading out into the desert, where we would be fine, but also wanted my students to be able to be a part of the launch, and knew that the majority would not be able to make the 2 hour drive each direction, due to other family obligations, cost of fuel, etc. After a long search, Goodyear donated their field for a launch site in Carson- where the airship is normally moored. I studied for and received my HAM radio license, to allow me to be able to send an APRS radio, and formed a partnership with a local HAM radio club to support and help train for inflating the balloon.

Next on my list was to get my students to learn about meteorology. I started contacting universities, professors, colleagues, and anyone I could think of that would be interested in a skype session with my students for 10 minutes. The incredible happened- KTLA in Los Angeles had a meteorologist that was interested in coming out and talking to my students- and we ended up making it onto the afternoon news! My students learned about high and low pressure, how weather balloons work, the different tools that meteorologists use, and got even more inspired about the project.

The morning of the launch, everything was as perfect as could be. The winds were absolutely calm, not a cloud in the sky, warm weather, and excitement filled the air. The crowd, filled with about 100 students, parents, community members, and friends, lined the edge of the Goodyear blimp mooring pad as the balloon slowly inflated with helium. My ground crew of students quickly got to work, putting to use what they had been learning, preparing for, and practicing for months. At precisely 9:09 AM on Saturday, April 16, the balloon was launched from the field, along with the realization that dreams can really come true.

Southern CA from 90,000 feet!Click image for larger view.

Southern CA from 90,000 feet!
Click image for larger view.

As the balloon soared to 97,000 feet above the Earth, some student families and I drove along the coast to try to recover it, as we all knew it was predicted to splash down in the Pacific Ocean. There is software online that if you input the predicted burst altitude, mass of payload, ascent and descent rate, date and time of the launch, and exact coordinates of the launch site, it can predict where the balloon would burst, and where it would touch down again. The prediction was accurate, and as we watched on radar, realized that we would not be able to recover it that day, as the winds were too strong on shore. We were not deterred by this recent change in plans, and began calling and contacting anyone who would possibly be willing to drive 20 miles off shore, in the hopes of capturing the balloon and its contents for later that day or even the next day. A small company called Xplore Offshore answered the phone, and was up for the challenge. Bright and early the next morning, they scoured the ocean, spending 4 hours out, armed only with coordinates that signaled where the payload was 12 hours before. They weren’t successful, and came back to shore- but determined to succeed.

The next day he went out again, this time with a second boat and updated coordinates. As they were out, a large wave pushed the payload out, triggering the GPS on board, and giving me brand new coordinates that were different than the ones we had been predicting. Unfortunately, they were too far offshore to be able to receive them! Phone calls and text messages went unanswered- and we were worried that once he came back in, he wouldn’t want to go out again- they have a business to run, and cannot continue scouring the ocean, especially when it is 20 miles off shore. I finally got a hold of him, begged, and he went out one more time, telling me that this was it- he couldn’t do it any more.

CCSAdAfter everything, he was able to retrieve the floating box of Styrofoam, encased in orange, floating out in the middle of the ocean. I went screaming from my classroom down the hallway to my principal, where we received a picture on my phone from the captain of the payload, balloon, and parachute, bobbing calmly in the ocean. After another moment of glee (and permission from my principal), I got in my car and drove to La Jolla, where I met the captain, my payload, and truly saw my dreams come true.

Was it a lot of work? Without a doubt- one of the most stressful experiences I’ve ever done as an educator. Was it worth it? Again, without a doubt- I had students that like science but are not interested in “school” that were begging their parents to get them to school early on their team days. Students are already asking me if they can be on the launch team for next year. Hearing a 5-year-old accurately explain to a group of adults why a balloon will burst in space is just extraordinary. I definitely know that I have some engineers and researchers on my team- kids that are going to change the world as we know it. All it took was a dream.

Written by Joanne Michael

Joanne Michael

Joanne Michael is a K-5 Science Specialist for Manhattan Beach Unified, former CSTA Upper Elementary director, and is a current CSTA member.

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