This has been a long time coming, but here is a recap of our Earth 360 Proof-of-concept flight.
Let us take you back to that Saturday morning. We got up early after a short night of sleep. Who could sleep much the night before such an exciting day? We roused the crew and began to make our way up to the famous Roscoe Diner off NY Route 17. This is where we would meet the rest of the crew and David (one of our Kickstarter backers) to nourish ourselves and discuss the procedures of launching the Earth 360 capsule.
Of course it didn't take long for the day's first hitch to arise; car trouble on the other half of the crew's end. It seems shortly after getting on NY Route 17 the power steering belt came off and the crew wisely got off the exit they were conveniently approaching. We called another crew member to head off to the rescue as Rhett and I continued towards Roscoe. Thankfully we all met up soon.
The morning was quite foggy and visibility not really in our favor. Considering this was a predominantly photographic mission it wasn't the best day to launch. The only reason we were even attempting to launch was the winds were very favorable and the clouds we low, meaning we would be over them relatively quickly. Due to the car trouble we were a good hour behind schedule, but kept pressing forward.
We made the short drive from the Roscoe Diner to the field we had scouted only using Google Earth/Maps. This field turned out to be Alan B. Sullivan Field adjoining the local school's fields. It was snow covered and shrouded in fog upon our arrival. We had already committed to launching so we began prepping the audio/video equipment and unloading the balloon, etc. Rhett organized the audio/video team members and reviewed last minute reminders and anticipated moments he wanted to capture. Rhett's dad and I took care of the actual launch preps. First on the list was get a tarp spread to protect the equipment from the snow covered ground. Next, we carried the all important helium tank to the tarp. Finally, we grabbed all the other components and tools we would need.
Once everything was unloaded and at the "launch pad" we could begin the actual process of filling and launching the balloon and the Earth 360 capsule. We used one of our phones to stream video of the preps and eventually the launch. This allowed family, friends, students, backers and anyone else out there to be with us. I made sure to tell everyone what I was doing to get the lines tied, cameras and GPS tracker installed and balloon readied for filling. During this time the clouds and fog burned off and we had ourselves a whole in the sky. We were prepared to punch a whole in it regardless, but it was so nice to see blue sky and sunlight shine down upon us.
At last the moment came to fill the balloon. We had no idea how long it would take or exactly how to measure the amount of helium to use. It was all trial and error now. And what an error we made. After what seemed to all a long time of filling the balloon we determined very unscientifically that the balloon had enough lift. We shut off the flow of helium and tied off the balloon. All seemed good. We started the cameras and started to allow the balloon to head up to the skies. It lifted everything but the Earth 360 capsule, which served as an anchor. Failure. I actually said out loud, "I don't know what to do." It couldn't be any more disheartening.
However, I did know what to do. We lowered the balloon back down and carefully removed the ties and tape which sealed it and began to add more helium. This time we figured if we hung the capsule from a safety string and the balloon could lift that we would be in better shape. Once the balloon comfortably pulled upward on the capsule, it's filling fitting and hose, we knew we were good. Again we tied off the balloon and started the cameras. At last we were ready to launch. It was 12:38 PM and we were anxious to start our countdown. We counted out loud (hopefully you did too) and after we all hit "one" I let go. The balloon and capsule zoomed up towards the heavens. I am not sure I have ever been so scared letting go, but no reward is possible without some risk.
The moment just after launch captured by David
We watched the balloon rise for a few moments, began cleaning up our site and gear and put a call into Stewart International Airport Operations. This is where we had our first scare during flight. I had called earlier to let them know we were launching a weather balloon and all seemed fine. Nothing could be further from the truth as I spoke to a different voice and was told no one had given me permission to launch anything! A pit immediately formed in my stomach and I calmly spoke to the official on the other end. He took down our information and said he would call back shortly.
With our joy sapped, we packed up and began the chase. The GPS was steadily pinging every ten minutes and after three pings we lost contact. This we had expected and we continued driving towards Connecticut and our eventual landing zone. An hour passed and suddenly we had a GPS ping. This was not expected. It was too early and not far enough away. Had we overfilled the balloon? Had it burst already? Our minds covered every possible scenario, good and bad. We weren't too far from the GPS ping's location and decided to head there and investigate. At this point, Rhett, Isaiah and I were ahead of his dad and the other crew members (who had stopped to get the car experiencing issues). We informed them of our plans. We also checked in with our forward recovery team in Connecticut. As we headed up the country roads to the last known location, another GPS ping was reported. This time it was way off course near North Canaan on the Connecticut/Massachusetts border! Now our minds went only to bad scenarios. We called our forward recovery team and requested they head to that location to investigate. We were only a few miles from the last "on course" GPS location so we continued to it. Nothing was there, which was good. The balloon hadn't come down early, but that didn't help us explain the "off course" GPS ping. We now searched for the best route to northern Connecticut.
As we proceeded towards Connecticut, my phone rang. It was the Stewart International Airport Operations number. Gulp. I answered and was greeted by the same official who was in a better state than when I had last talked to him. He explained the confusion on their end. Apparently, more than one balloon launch was happening that day. He was super professional and helped us understand the proper procedures for the next time we attempt a launch. A huge wave of relief came over us and we could now focus on the chase and recovery with the proper emotions.
The next GPS ping had us reverting course back to our projected landing zone in central Connecticut. We were now the furthest group as Rhett's dad and the crew had made it back into the area. Since it was fast approaching when we anticipated the capsule to be safely descending by parachute to the earth, we dispatched Rhett's dad and crew to the now apparent landing zone. We had finally traversed the country roads back into western Connecticut ourselves. We stopped at the nearest Starbucks for the wifi so as to coordinate the recovery process. The day and any brightness which had penetrated the clouds and dense fog was quickly vanishing with nightfall approaching. The crews managed to meet in the neighborhood where the GPS was now steadily pinging from signaling it had landed. After a short time searching it was located some eighty feet in a tall oak tree. The chase had ended. The capsule was safely back, but out of reach. It would remain there the night at the minimum.
We had done it. What exactly we had done we didn't quite know. We assumed given the data we had that we had in fact climbed to at least one hundred thousand feet. Little did we know the last eighty feet would be the hardest.
We descended upon the landing the next day. This was the first Rhett and I had seen of the capsule with our own eyes. The precarious position the capsule was now caught in had been described as attainable. Seeing it with daylight and fresh set of eyes we realized it would be much harder than anticipated to recover. We plotted and even attempted some interesting methods of freeing the capsule, but all to no avail. The capsule would spend another night in the tree. The weather kept us from the capsule until Tuesday when we finally brought in some professional help. I immediately drove the capsule back to the studio and we began to assess the photos. We had indeed been successful!
Well, this is it. After six months of hard work, thousands of man-hours, and gallons of coffee, we are a go for launch.
The launch will take place tomorrow December 15, 2012 in upstate New York. We look forward to possibly seeing a couple of Kickstarter backers there as well.
However, we have been busy making provisions so that ALL of you can follow the action live. Thats right, www.almostspace.com will let you follow us live! We will have a live video stream of the launch and recovery efforts, as well as having a live GPS map to show you where the balloon is at all times. We have also built the site to be compatible with not only your computer, but also mobile phones and tablets. So wherever you are you can follow us.
The stream will start at around 9 AM, with a launch around 10 AM.
Thanks again for your support and until next time