by Mrs. Joanne Michael, Science Specialist- Meadows Elementary
Three years ago, I had a dream— I wanted to work with my students to send a balloon into the edge of space. 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—nothing.
In the fall of 2015, the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation (MBEF) began a new grant program for teachers—the “Teachers Driving Innovation Grants” (TDIG) to give teachers an opportunity to go a bit “outside the box”, in the interest of inspiring kids or pushing them out of their comfort zones. I knew this was my chance—if my goal was to be achieved, it had to be through this grant.
Thanks to the TDIG committee (which includes a local charter school leader, a retired MBUSD teacher, an innovation leader at Northrop, an entrepreneur, and two business leaders), my grant was funded, and the planning and preparing began. 34 students were selected out of the school, based on their love of science, personal drive, and ability to work with others. After a long search, Goodyear donated their field for a launch site. I was able to get my radio license, and formed a partnership with a local radio club to support and help train for inflating the balloon. I worked with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and they allowed us to launch into (previously uncharted to a weather balloon) Bravo airspace.
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. The 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.
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. 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 be willing to drive their boat 20 miles off shore, in the hopes of capturing the balloon and its contents.
Meanwhile, a boat captain for a small company called Xplore Offshore answered the phone, and was up for the challenge. Bright and early the next morning, he scoured the ocean, spending 4 hours armed only with coordinates that signaled where the payload was 12 hours before. He was not 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. But no! The captain was 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. The captain has a business to run, and cannot continue scouring the ocean, especially when it is 20 miles off shore.
To my surprise, I learned that the captain was able to retrieve the floating box of Styrofoam, encased in orange, from the middle of the ocean. I went screaming from my classroom down the hallway to Principal Stopp, where we received a picture on my phone- 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 safely drove to La Jolla, where I met the captain, my payload, and truly saw my dreams come true.
Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for this incredible opportunity, and for allowing me to share this experience with my students and the community! Thank you for supporting MBEF so they can encourage teacher innovations like this. I have been uploading the videos from the payload all evening/morning, and am just completely blown away. When I get a chance, I will make a slide show/movie of the footage. I am giving a copy of the raw film to MBMS’s film class for them to get the experience of editing data. I am flying to Sacramento today to work on assessments for Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for California, but will return late Thursday night and plan to share some of the video on the MBEF Facebook page and website! It is truly awe-inspiring.
In the meantime, here is a screen shot from one of the cameras—this was taken from about 70,000 feet up. You can make out the South Bay, the Palos Verdes peninsula…just amazing.