West Potomac students launch balloon into ‘space’

Students from West Potomac’s Advanced STEM Engineering class successfully launched a balloon into space last Saturday, peaking at an altitude of more than 100,000 feet during a flight that lasted more than two hours.

The “Wolverine High Altitude Balloon” — complete with the school’s logo secured to one of the rig’s ropes — ascended as high as 19 miles above the Earth after being launched at the Allegany College of Maryland on Saturday morning. The balloon fell back to Earth in the Great Falls area, and the whole thing was captured on video — later slickly edited and set to the sound of Queen’s classic “Don’t Stop Me Now.”

Longtime West Potomac technology teacher Joe Franco came up with the idea to send a balloon to space after seeing another school do it few years back. Franco wanted there to be one big difference when his kids did it, however: The students would need to do all the work, all the calculations, design and construction without any direct help from the grown-ups.

“I told them, ‘I am not going to be the one who is lead on it,'” Franco recalled. “I am just there as an advisor.”

Research on the project was actually started by some of last year’s seniors, but Franco said this year’s class took it over and ran with it. Students were responsible for the research and calculations, they acquired the materials and rigged the balloon together, contacted the FAA and even launched it without Franco present (he was in constant communication via phone though).

The student team was made up of seven seniors — William Makinen (project lead), Warren Herrington, John Hayden Quilty, Dave Anderson, Paolo Fermin, Demby Marquez and Dean Hosek — and one junior, John Little.

Fermin produced the video of the flight, which was mostly captured by two GoPro cameras pointed in opposite directions. A flight computer was also attached, providing data to the students on the ground. 

The balloon itself was filled with 180 cubic feet of a special kind of helium. Once launched, the balloon made it to 30,000 feet — the altitude that commercial airliners fly at — in 31 minutes. It entered the stratosphere a few minutes later. At one hour and four minutes into the flight, the balloon reached 60,000 feet in the air — so high that the GPS monitors lost touch with the trackers on the ground.

The balloon would eventually reach an altitude of 100,423 feet, expanding to 93 times its original size. It then burst, and began its rapid descent back to Earth. 

The balloon was launched in western Maryland to prevent it from landing in the water, Franco said. The students did manage to land it near where they expected and avoid water. But they ran into another problem: the balloon got stuck 140 feet up a tree.

The students tried various methods to get it down, including trying to have a drone grab it, before asking Franco if maybe they should try to climb up and get it.

“I said no, that’s not going to happen,” Franco said. 

Ultimately professionals were hired to safely retrieve the rig, which thankfully escaped damage (or rain) after sitting in the tree all day and night. 

Franco called the balloon space flight one of the greatest successes his classes have achieved. That success, he said, was a testament to the students’ brains, teamwork and versatility.

“A perfect team of kids, because they were able to accent each other,” Franco said. “They were all depending on each other to get stuff done.”

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  1. Martin Tillett
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