View From the Top

(Originally appeared in Discoveries…newsletter, Fall 2015)

At 6:20AM on Saturday, September 29, 2015 Discovery’s David Mestre emerged through the Museum’s automatic doors to glare at the sky for the fourth time in the last hour.  The coming dawn was a faint gray glow amid pattered clouds.

“The sun’ll burn through that,” he said, waving both hands at the thin but prevalent gray—also for the fourth time. “There won’t be fifty percent cloud cover when it’s time to go. There can’t be.” He frowned, resumed staring.

It’s worth mentioning here that Mestre is the Director of the Discovery Museum’s Henry B. duPont III Planetarium; it’s not terribly unusual to catch him gawking skyward.  But even for an astrophysicist, this was excessive. “I’m a little nervous,” he confessed.

It was Launch Day, the first time in the Museum’s fifty-three year history that staff would send an untethered high altitude balloon (HAB) with custom payload tens of thousands of feet into the air. The goal of the mission was to test technology and procedure before rolling out programming for young learners to do their own HAB missions. –More than 50% cloud cover, however, and in keeping with FAA standards, the mission would be a “no-go.” Cue obsessive sky checking.

Four cars full of University of Bridgeport engineering and computer science students arrived. Led by Dr. Jani Pallis, a mechanical engineering professor at the University, these 20 helped comprise the volunteer launch, radio room, and recovery teams to assist mission coordinator Mestre and lead engineers Larry Reed and Mike Miciukiewicz. Most of them were looking up, too.

Setting up for launch. Copyright Mike Florio Photography
Setting up for launch. Copyright Mike Florio Photography

Sending any object to near-space is not a simple undertaking. The authorities must be informed (many a high altitude balloon has been mistaken for a UFO), including the Coast Guard Auxiliary and a boat crew for an intended splashdown and retrieval in the Long Island Sound.  Two separate chase cars were required to be on standby in the event of an emergency land recovery. And for all that organization and logistics management, a HAB launch is left always at the mercy of the weather. A freak gust of wind can drastically alter a flight path –an ideal launch will include wind speeds of no higher than about 8mph—or clouds could roll in, limiting visibility too much for planes overhead to ensure a safe launch.

And then there’s the technology to consider.  The payload must be able to transmit sensor data and its location in real time. The ability to communicate with a payload is critical in teaching students about telemetry and about the value of handling issues as they arise. A huge component of HAB programming is designing and building a working science payload, which improves STEM skills as it is developed, and STEM knowledge as it collects data for analysis. Ensuring safe payload retrieval is critical.

The students and lead engineers split into their assigned teams, and the balloon, payload, and helium were transported to the nearby Veterans Park for launch. At the launch site, the crew was focused, but as the run rose and the clouds lifted, a kind of jittery excitement descended. The 800 gram balloon was filled with helium and tied off. The parachute and neon orange box containing the science payload were checked and double-checked, as was the mounted GoPro which would record the flight.

“We’re really doing it,” one of the students said.

A voice came over the radio. “Go ahead at the launch pad when you are ready for launch.” Beep. “Launch crew, are you go for launch?” Beep.

“Stand by.” Beep. Then, “We are go.”

“Final check. Launch pad: go. Launch controllers: go. Telemetry: go. APRS squaking: go. Recovery ship…” the list went on, and the voice was lost in a brief gust of wind that caused the balloon to flail and dip toward the ground as the volunteers struggled to control it.  Then, as if on cue, all went still. “Clear for launch.” Beep. 

The launch crew let go amid an eruption of cheers.

The balloon and payload moments after launch
The balloon and payload moments after launch

The balloon ascended with great speed and within a couple hours made it to an altitude of 89,300ft –just south of 17 miles high—before it burst and made its descent toward the water at a speed of roughly 120mph. It made a successful splashdown in front of Shinnecock Hills Golf Course (of PGA Tour fame) was spotted and located within 20 minutes, and was retrieved by volunteers from the vessel Slip Away from the Bullhead Yacht Club of Southhampton.  The payload transmitted data for the duration of its flight, and the GoPro footage is, as described by Mestre, “epic,” and can be seen in all its epic-ness by clicking here –special thanks to Alban Gaval for filming this great video.

While observing the excitement and drama of the launch, it was easy to picture how impactful a learning adventure a high altitude mission will be for young learners and their families, and as an afterschool program for young learners.


This was the view of the curveature of the Earth form the balloon as it reached near space!
This was the view of the curveature of the Earth form the balloon as it reached near space!


thumb_Discovery Launches High Altitude Balloon