Today was the big day. We had an appointment with space. We packed up the family including my mom, all of our equipment, plenty of duct tape, and a spool of twine… Months of planning (1, 2, 3, 4) would all end today with a balloon launch. Today, the kids will see a sight that will be etched into their minds for the rest of their lives… or at least for a few days…
But, before we get into the story, a quick plug for our sponsor Karlin Kersavage of Pure Power, without whom we wouldn’t have a story to write about. He donated his Droid 2 phone which was the brains of our adventure.
For all your electrical needs
No one exceeds
Seriously, though…. he’s great. Highly recommend.
We chose today because it also happened to be low tide and razor clamming was open. The launch area that we agreed to launch at was close to the clamming beaches, so we thought we’d kill two birds with one stone,since it would be a long drive out to the peninsula. We left our house about 8:30 and arrived at Montesano, WA at about 10am. On the way, we had an abbreviated science cram lesson on:
GPS and triangulation
Caleb was pretty engaged. Andrew listened, but he had a look on his face that he often has right before he falls asleep. We found the baseball field without much trouble. It was a pretty small town. I called into the FAA before the launch per their instructions and let them know we’re a go.
We set out a tarp in the middle of the field because I’ve read that the weather balloon can be very delicate and it probably shouldn’t come in contact with grass or dirt. The weather was foggy and overcast which is not untypical for this time of year. A little disappointing as the weather forecast said that it would be sunny.
I first set up the glider. I power cycled my phone, then started my program which took pictures and sent me a text message every 36 seconds. Why 36 seconds? In our final testing, I found out that if any applications sends more than 100 texts in an hour, then a confirmation dialog box pops up. Since I will not be there with the phone to confirm I’d like to send the text, I had to limit the texts to 36 seconds to stay within the limit. I confirmed that Tenille’s phone was receiving the GPS texts, then strapped the phone into the case. I also strapped on a 7 hour hand warmer. At high altitudes, the temperatures can get frigid and apparently, it can make your phone stop working.
After a final round of duct taping to ensure that the phone package and the wings were not going to detach from the fuselage of the plane, it was time to blow up the weather balloon.
I carefully rolled out the weather balloon, dawned my latex gloves, and rolled out my 2 Michael’s balloon kit helium tanks. Each kit was supposed to blow up 30 balloons. I figured that a weather balloon couldn’t be more than 60 balloons big… I wondered if I even needed the second tank.
I didn’t wonder for too long. The first tank barely gave the balloon shape and was not lifting off of the ground. This did not bode well.
After the second tank, the balloon was floating, but it was supposed to be 8 feet in diameter. It was barely lifting itself off of the ground. This was not good. There was no way the balloon was going to lift the package into the air. We were discouraged. We were out in a little town in the peninsula with a 1/4 inflated weather balloon. The even worse news – this was about $40 worth of helium. Helium was going to be the most expensive part of the launch… if we were going to have a launch… What are we going to do now? Tenille started dialing. The closest place she could find was a party rental place in Lacey (45 minutes away). $110 for a tank of Helium that will fill about 200 balloons. (YIKES!) There was also a Thriftway in town that had a helium tank. Tenille tried to negotiate taking the tank of helium, but apparently, the helium tank does not leave the store…. We thought that maybe we could hang the balloon outside the van window and slowly drive over to the Thriftway, but it’s doubtful they would have rolled the helium tank out to the parking lot… and how would we get an 8 foot diameter weather balloon in and out a sliding door? How much would they charge?
Not many wives, would agree to spending $110 for a tank of gas for a hair-brained experiment. Even fewer wives would drive an hour and a half to go get the said tank of gas. This is why I love my wife. Since we couldn’t fit the balloon in the van. One of us would have to stay and the other would have to go get the Helium. Tenille opted to drive to Lacey.
This was now looking like a real NASA style launch. The launch was delayed… but unlike a NASA launch it was only delayed for a few hours. The kids decided to stick with me and my mom went with Tenille to Lacey. I took out the Droid 2 out of the duct taped casing and turned it off to conserve batteries. While we were waiting, we had 60 balloons to play with, so we made up a whole bunch of games and played them.
Tenille and my mom didn’t seem like they had quite as much fun on their 1.5 hour van ride picking up a helium tank. Thank you for your sacrifice, ladies! The launch is back on!!! I resealed the phone back into its case and attached it back on to the glider. I hauled the helium tank out to the middle of the field and started inflating. Just as we were setting up the second time, the clouds all burned away and the sun shone down on us brightly. Sometimes, adversity can be a blessing in disguise.
It was tough to tell when to stop inflating. We wanted it to have enough lift, but we didn’t want it to pop. That would be a disaster. We kept inflating and inflating… as much as we would dare. I would say, “another 30 seconds…” and Tenille would countdown… then I would say, another 30 seconds… We did this about 4 or 5 times… When we felt like it was about as big as I was tall. We didn’t want to press our luck much further. The balloon at this point had PLENTY of lift. It was actually tiring to hold on to it and keep it on the ground. It was like weight lifting upside down…
We sealed the balloon with duct tape and attached the string. The string had an O-ring that we used to hook onto a hook that we attached to the top of the glider. This was so that when the balloon popped, it could easily slip off of the airplane and not interfere with its flight.
We were ready to launch. We took a few family pictures and all the kids (including me) grabbed the string. We got ready to countdown and let go together. That is when disaster struck. Pictures are worth a thousand words, but videos are even better.
I asked Caleb later on a scale of 1-10 what was the level of disappointment you felt at this moment. He answered, “It was a 10.” I asked, “This is the most disappointing thing that ever happened in your life?” “Yes.”
At the time, we were all in shock. It’s actually hard to fully describe the level of disappointment that we were all feeling at this moment. Never mind the months that we have prepared for this. Just the fact that my wife just drove 1.5 hours to go spend $110 on another tank of Helium… for this?
Needless to say, our family has analyzed this video many, many times at this point. My diagnosis in the video was that one of the kids had jerked down the cable unhooking it from the plane. I think if you look at the video, the problem was that we were just not holding the line straight down. So, when we all let go, the line suddenly straightened, releasing the plane from the hook. Ouch….
Ahhhh, the ever-familiar feelings of complete failure. I know you. We keep very close company… When you try new and risky things, failure sometimes (or often) is inevitable…. For better or for worse, my kids (and also my poor wife) also are starting build a relationship with failure. Sorry to drag you down with me, family… but here we are… Doesn’t feel good, but it’s the price you pay for trying stuff sometimes…
I think the natural immediate reaction is second guessing yourself. But, the measure of character is how quickly you can move forward. We spent about 5 minutes dwelling on what just happened. Then we saw what remained of the party balloon kit. We used about 15 balloons in games waiting for Tenille and my mom. We had another 45 balloons left… and a big tank of Helium… We just created Plan B. We were going to go “UP” style.
We made a production line and started pumping up all the balloons. I filled the balloons up with helium and tied them. Tenille tied on the strings. Andrew cut the strings with the scissors. Caleb had the very important job of holding the balloons and most importantly not letting them go. After 30 minutes, our Plan B was coming together. We ditched the plane and just tied the phone and case to the balloons. For the weather balloon, we needed the glider because the balloon would pop and the phone would hurl towards the earth. Using a bunch of balloons, balloons would pop one by one until the package starts to descend. And the descent rate will be slow because there will still be a bunch of balloons attached to it. Perhaps even more importantly, our bunch of balloons probably couldn’t lift the glider. We didn’t need any stinking glider. We were on Plan B and we’d be ecstatic if we saw anything tied to a bunch of balloons disappear into the sky…
We tied the phone case to the balloon bunch and we were ready to launch. With the package securely attached this time, we let the kids do the honors.
We were excited to see the Text Messages come in and log it to my balloon tracking website. We were concerned as we saw the phone traveling West for quite a while. Oh no! It’s heading for the Ocean. But after about 30 minutes, it thankfully took a sharp direction change and started heading South East.
We launched about 2:20pm and the last Text message we received at 3:40pm. As of this writing (2pm the following day), I think phone retrieval is likely not going to happen. I suppose that there’s a tiny chance that just the right number of balloons popped so that the phone is still flying somewhere in mid-atmosphere over Oregon, but I think those chances could be classified as “miraculous”. We did put my name, phone, and email on the camera case, so it might also be possible that hikers could see a clump of balloons and retrieve it for us… Also, very unlikely, but it’s possible…
In a few hours, I will activate my old (non-smart) phone so that I can start getting phone calls again. Sorry to anyone that’s been trying to call me the last 24 hours… My phone was either up in the atmosphere or somewhere deep in the woods.
Lessons learned and perhaps lessons taught:
1. Always try hard stuff. If you’re always succeeding the first time, you’re not trying hard enough things… (If you’re failing all the time, you might just be a little too sloppy… I might be teaching this lesson inadvertently…)
2. Pick your wife carefully. She will help you and encourage you to fulfill your highest dreams and potential, or sometimes she will keep you from them. I can’t say enough about Tenille. Rare is the wife who will put up with what I ask of her. To have spent an hour and a half driving and $110 just to watch it pointlessly float away, and merely laugh…. I love my wife… I’m so lucky…
3. When you think all hope is lost, it’s usually not.
4. Great memories are not always made by things going perfectly. (This is probably a good lesson for weddings…)
5. Shipping is the most important feature of any project. This project could have been done better in a thousand different ways, but all those improvements don’t matter if you don’t actually do it. Most of the time, we have constraints on time and resources and we have to finish the project with what we’ve got to work with.
6. There was also some stuff about air pressure, triangulation, and buoyancy that you’ll probably never remember nor use.
Some things for next time:
1. FAA notification is optional for the type of balloon launches we’re doing. I went through the whole process this time, but I’ll probably skip it next time.
2. Helium is the most expensive part of the launch. I need some kind of Helium wholesale connection. Without this, I think it’s going to be prohibitively too expensive to do this too often… (or even one more time…) I suppose it can also be solved by getting a bag of money to do this again.
3. I would pay more careful attention to the launch trajectory and pick a date and time when the balloon will fly in the direction I want it to fly. This last time, I picked a date and time, then we launched even though I knew that the balloon would go flying into the woods. However, if we waited until a day where we knew the winds would blow in the right direction, I think we could have had cell phone connectivity through most if not all of the flight. This would just take a little more flexibility in launch time, but I think we could drastically increase the probability of retrieving the phone. On our way out to Montesano, we had 4G reception pretty much all of the way there. If we would have waited for a day where the winds were blowing East rather than South, the probability of retrieval would have been significantly higher.
4. Another fun idea might be to create a homing beacon. I just got my HAM license, so I could broadcast telemetry information using amateur frequencies directly to me rather than having to rely on cell phone towers. A definite maybe.
We have a trip out to Utah this coming December. If we can get access to some Helium, I’d like to see if we can try another launch in the Salt Lake Valley. I have another phone (not as good as the Droid 2), but it would be fun to launch again with some of Caleb’s cousins and his grandpa. This is the same grandpa who helped me make a breast pump out of a windshield wiper motor for my wife, his daughter. That project also ended up similarly – not exactly according to plan… but memorable…