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Exciting news from the world of space exploration last week.

No, not the Boeing Starliner that took astronauts to the International Space Station, although that was cool. We’re talking about the Pioneer Elementary School space balloon launch on Friday. It was quite an adventure.

The Marigolds survived…barely. Retrieving the balloon required an act of heroism – well, let’s call it good-natured generosity – from a stranger nearly 35 miles away. The Pop Rocks did not behave as expected.

Students and volunteers fill the space balloon with helium before launch on June 7, 2024 at Pioneer Elementary School. Photo by Christina T. Henry

Second annual balloon launch

The balloon flew at 78,146 feet, about twice the altitude of a commercial airliner. That’s not quite outside our planet’s atmosphere, but high enough that its cameras captured the curvature of the Earth, the landforms of the wider Puget Sound region below, and the inky blue of space.

How cold was it up there? During last year’s mission, when the balloon rose to an altitude of 29,000 meters, a temperature of minus 31 degrees was measured. Surprisingly, the marigolds on this year’s flight seemed to cope well with the conditions in space. It was the landing and its aftermath that almost did them in.

This year’s balloon, aptly named the Near Space Balloon, launched just after 9 a.m. Friday under the direction of Justin Towner, the school’s innovation specialist. Pioneer’s entire student body, consisting of 500 cheering children, cheered on by Rhubarb, the Tacoma Rainiers mascot, joined in the countdown: 3, 2, 1, and the launch team let it rip.

The latex balloon, filled with 330 cubic meters of helium, had a diameter of about 3 to 3.6 meters. It rose quickly and was soon just a small white spot in the bright blue sky.

Seventeen minutes after launch, the balloon was at an altitude of 12,100 feet and flying southwest.

Preparing for the mission

Pioneer Elementary is the Peninsula School District’s only STEAM magnet school, with a focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and math. Students from across the district apply to enroll.

Towner’s mission is to introduce the entire student body to scientific concepts and innovations through hands-on, experiential learning and real-world problem solving. The concepts Towner covered during the balloon launch unit included aerodynamics, climatology, geography, atmospheric science and biology.

Justin Towner, innovation specialist at Pioneer Elementary School, shows students and guests the flight path of a space balloon that will be launched from the school on June 7, 2024. Photo: Christina T. Henry

All of Pioneer’s students were excited about the balloon’s mission, from the big kids who will soon move on to middle school to kindergarteners like Scarlett Marshall, who watched the launch wearing chic pink sunglasses. A launch crew of a dozen fourth- and fifth-grade students selected by teachers or peers planned experiments and finalized logistical details for the mission.

This year’s payload included two flight computers for data collection, three cameras and a GPS tracker for location determination. New this year was the StratoTrack transmitter, which uses radio signals to send live data such as altitude, speed, location and more.

Kindergarten student Scarlett Marshall watches the space balloon as it rises into the sky after launch at Pioneer Elementary School on June 7, 2024. Photo by Christina T. Henry

Pop Rocks and Marigolds

In the months leading up to the launch, students experimented with smaller party balloons to understand the variables of lift, thrust and weight.

The students considered a number of possible experiments. Sending ice cream into near-Earth space was briefly considered a long shot. This year’s experiments included a mood ring to measure the effects of temperature changes and small balloons designed to explode when air pressure decreased. The students brought Pop Rocks on board, assuming the candy would burst in the thin air. Marigolds from the school garden were sent along with the payload to study the effects of temperature and air pressure on living things.

Maddie Dowdle, a member of the launch team, said she was “excited to see how high it will fly, especially in the wind, and how the mood ring and flower will react, because you never know how cold it is up there until you send something up there to test it.”

Her prediction about the flowers: “Either they will probably freeze, wilt and die, or they will somehow survive.”

Predicting the flight path of a balloon

Pioneer sources its space balloons from High Altitude Science, a company that supplies experimental balloons to schools, research labs and government organizations. Towner chose a mid-size model, described by the company as “the little machine that could.” It has a typical launch altitude of 95,000 to 105,000 feet.

Last year’s balloon reached an altitude of 95,280 feet before the difference in atmospheric pressure inside and outside burst the latex. Atmospheric pressure at sea level is about 15 psi (pounds per square inch). At 95,000 feet, it is 0.1 psi.

A student at Pioneer Elementary School watches excitedly as the space balloon rises into the sky after launch on June 7, 2024. Photo: Christina T. Henry

Shortly after the start, Towner was optimistic.

“Our goal is 100,000. We would like to break the 100,000-foot mark,” he said.

In the week before launch, their flight path prediction app, which takes several variables into account, showed the balloon flying east toward Snoqualmie Pass. By Friday, however, the route had changed significantly and the balloon was expected to land near Point Defiance in Tacoma.

Towner informed the FAA in advance of the launch date and received final approval around 6 a.m. on Friday.

The kindness of strangers

Last year’s balloon crashed near Point No Point in North Kitsap. Towner retrieved it in a kayak. This year’s payload was heavier than last year, which may explain the slower ascent and lower altitude at burst.

The balloon climbed at 10.37 feet per second. StratoTrack data showed it flying southeast over Tacoma and past Bonney Lake, where it made a large, lazy zigzag. It burst after 1 hour and 56 minutes at an altitude of 78,146 feet. A parachute opened and the payload landed 42 minutes later southeast of Enumclaw, 34.1 miles from Pioneer. Towner found the balloon 60 feet up in a tree.

The StratoTrack app shows the trajectory of the Pioneer Elementary School space balloon on June 7, 2024. It landed near Enumclaw, 60 feet high in a tree, and was recovered by a local logger.

“After driving to Enumclaw to visit the hardware store and rental company and talk to the locals, one name kept coming up,” Towner said.

Wes Bruhn, owner of Bruhn Logging & Tree Services, volunteered to recover the balloon. He brought his spider lift and his 13-year-old son, Wade, who helped untangle the lines. All experiments and equipment were recovered.

“I’ve rescued many cats, drones and remote-controlled airplanes, but never a balloon,” said Bruhn. “I knew he was in a difficult situation and this was a great opportunity to help him.”

Insights for next year

The mission had its glitches. One of the cameras shut down seconds before liftoff, so no video of the landing was recorded. The marigolds were damaged during landing.

“They looked healthy when they popped, but the impact and long exposure to hot sun have obviously taken a toll on them,” Towner said. “I’ll take them back to school tomorrow and the kids can replant them in our school garden and let them grow back.”

There were some unexpected results. The Pop Rocks “seemed to curdle and harden a bit,” he reported.

Wes Bruhn, owner of Bruhn Logging & Tree Services in Enumclaw, and his 13-year-old son Wade retrieved a space balloon launched by students at Pioneer Elementary School in Gig Harbor on June 7, 2024.

Towner and his students will spend the rest of the school year reviewing data, videos and experiments. Their findings will serve as the basis for the launch of the Pioneer balloon into space in 2025.

“The most important thing I’ve learned is that if you put your mind to something, you can achieve anything,” Dowdle said. “And if you fail, you just have to get back up and try again.”

But of course there are no failures in this business, only learning opportunities.

A student at Pioneer Elementary School watches excitedly as the space balloon rises into the sky after launch on June 7, 2024. Photo: Christina T. Henry

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