Finding Purpose in a Lost Balloon

*This blog post was originally written June, 2016. A new post about this year’s launch is tentatively slated for December, 2016. Fingers crossed!

3…2…1…WOOO!!!

An idea that really began as a side project with the simple goal of aerial photography of our school has quickly become a signature moment annually at WCDS. Launching a weather balloon seems like a sweet, timeless activity fitting of an elementary school. We’ve all released balloons before. There is something beautiful and engaging about watching the gentle twirl of those bubbles turning into tiny specks in the sky and ultimately disappearing amongst the clouds. But releasing a weather balloon is quite different. Release doesn’t exactly do it justice. Launch is the correct term, without a doubt. This gigantic balloon, nearly 10 feet in diameter at take off, feels like it is begging to be untethered the entire time, and when you finally loosen your grip, it leaps from your hands to rush directly up above the open-mouthed crowd like a rocket. It’s a surprisingly emotional moment; letting go of something your students have invested so much time in, created from scratch, really, wanting so desperately to control its path and determine their success. But once you let go, that’s it. All the research and engineering and weather predictions and flight simulations and personal creativity are out there, and it’s sink or swim, or rather, fall or fly.

The class and I find ourselves, like everyone else, staring straight up at our weather balloon, JoJo II, the second of its kind, named in memoriam for a lost student in the previous class, as it ascended into a fading blue sky. The setting sun shone brightly on the enormous balloon, and its rays seemed to bounce off the shimmering payload (just a little Styrofoam cooler wrapped in a silver emergency blanket) to give us a view of our project well beyond the limits we had predicted. In fact, we were able to leave the launch area, call the FAA to confirm the flight, proudly high five and hug, and still crane our necks to see a plane turn away from our flight path. Shortly after, we saw the balloon hit the jet stream and take a hard turn due east. Perfect. We were right where we wanted to be. In a couple hours we would be calling on our search team to check our coordinates. Then in the morning we would head to a wooded area near the tristate border of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland to pick up our prize. The last step would be wiping our drool while watching the inevitably stunning footage. JoJo II should have peaked just below 100,000 feet around dusk, giving us an overhead time lapse of our entire region lighting up for the night. To add a little context, that is almost three times the height of the cruising altitude of an average commercial airliner. The students had worked so hard for three months developing unique goals, researching everything from balloon structure to helium prices to government regulations and legalities, submitting funding proposals, creatively developing the payload and camera placement, and of course, promoting the launch. It was the wonderful culmination of a trimester of hard work. Just the perfect day.

Unfortunately, just about the time we watched the balloon turn east, we also received what would be our final ‘ping’ from our on board GPS. The loss of signal was expected around that time, however, as we reached 20,000 feet, the general threshold of our GPS unit. The signal should have picked up once our parachute reached below that level again, about two hours later. But after about six anxious hours, we went to bed, hoping for better news in the morning. Each day became increasingly painful as the students asked for information I only wished I had. Little did they know, I would often spend what seemed entire planning periods and weekends searching for that GPS. I posted on countless message boards asking hunters and hikers to keep looking up in case we landed in a tree over Ohiopyle or New Germany State Parks. Over and over my hopes were dashed. My computer quickly learned the phrase ‘Found Weather Balloon’ and seemed to mercifully fill my search bar automatically with just one click. But each day: nothing.

So as a proper research team is wont to do, we pivoted. The footage and physical recovery were certainly primary objectives, and easily the most exciting aspect of the project, but there was plenty to be learned as it were. We began analyzing the data. We had about 20 minutes of recorded flight. We knew where the balloon was at the time of loss. Since we lost the signal, we knew generally how fast it must have been rising, and we watched as it hit the jet stream and turned. So we plugged our data into our programs, ran retroactive simulators, and came to believe we had confirmed most of our predictions, including our landing zone. Now we had some renewed hope. We had an idea where it was, and of course we made a return label, after all, so there was always a chance someone would stumble upon JoJo II. It would come home at some point and we would all come back together for a make shift reunion to review our footage. With that, we moved on, sort of. We began other projects, asked about the balloon, took field trips, asked about the balloon, and started the downhill run to the end of our school year, and of course, asked about the balloon. One day it’d be back. We just knew it.

And just like that, in early May, one day came. All year I had answered phone calls from Maryland or Pennsylvania with a rush of excitement, only to be dashed when a telemarketer or customer service agent spoke on the other line. But this time…

  • ‘Hi. Is this Luke?’
  • ‘Yes…’
  • ‘Hi Luke. I just found this silver box in my dad’s back yard…’

The rest of the call is pretty much a blur of our campus as I jumped and ran to the fifth grade classroom. I had been saying all year something along the lines of ‘Believe me, if I get the call I’m interrupting anything you’re doing to tell you about it.’ As I got to the door I turned around and ran back to grab my iPad. I had to record this. I walked in with one of the worst poker faces of all time, interrupted graduation speech practice (as promised), and asked Mrs. Rutherford to hit record. I asked Connor, the student who had asked about the weather balloon about an hour earlier, to repeat his question.

  • ‘Did we find the weather balloon yet?’
  • ‘Yes, we found the weather balloon!’

Another blurred memory filled with kids running and screaming and crying and hugging. I’d hang my hat on that feeling any day.

After waiting with hope and pivoting to make the best of a difficult situation, JoJo II came home just about six months to the day after launch. Amazingly, wouldn’t you know it, after all that time of rain and snow and freezing temperatures, we plugged those cameras in and every second was right there on screen. And if somehow that wasn’t enough, it was sent home by a fifth grade student in Accident, Maryland, right on the tristate boarder with Pennsylvania and West Virginia. We have since Skyped with his class and shared the project with his school. The school, in return, has committed to launching a weather balloon of its own next year! We hope to continue adding as many partner schools as possible in the years to come, thus creating a network of amateur launchers working and sharing progress together.

Since we began this project I have learned to trust in 10-year-old students so much more than I ever thought possible. It has made me believe in them as creators, as apprentices, as partners in something so far beyond their typical realm of possibility. They continually amaze me with their demand that the project to progress, and I’m so excited to see where we go from here.

Those pictures you’re thinking about? Here they are…

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*Over the next few weeks I’m going to throw a bunch of sign offs against the wall and see what sticks…

Keep Talking to Yourself,

-Mr. H