Wareham students reach for the stars with balloon project

Jun 16, 2016

A group of St. Margaret Regional School students were hoping for a splashdown on Thursday afternoon, they settled for a crash down instead.

Members of the school’s Near Space Balloon Club launched a balloon and its payload of high-tech instruments nearly 100,000 feet – that’s 18 miles – into the atmosphere.

Inside a styrofoam craft modeled after the Apollo 11 command module, devices tracked the balloon's path, snapped photographs and collected data on altitude, air pressure and temperature.

Parent and volunteer Larry Palmer said the project ties together many disciplines for the students, who are in fifth and sixth grade at the Bourne-based Catholic school.

“It’s engineering, it’s science, it’s arts and crafts,” said Palmer. “They start with a dream – to send something into space – and how can they possibly send something into space? They’re 10 years old. They build a craft from the ground up and see things and do things that very few people have done.”

It was the fourth launch students have done over the past six years, Palmer said. Using weather patterns, students predicted where the best launch site would be in the hopes of having the instruments parachute into Buzzards Bay for recovery. They came up short these last two years, however.

“Today wasn’t the smoothest mission of all time,” Palmer said, noting a lot of little variables sent the balloon off course.

The craft was retrieved from a tree near Gray Gables beach in Bourne with help from firefighters. The balloon is designed to burst when it reaches a certain height, generally around 100,000 feet. Students, teachers and volunteers drove to Grafton, near Worcester, so it would land near Buzzards Bay.

Palmer said the exact height the balloon reached will be known once all of the information is retrieved. Despite the problems, he declared Thursday a success.

“Engineers don’t get hung up on success or failure,” said Palmer. “They get hung up on what happened and how they can do it better next time.”

Several Wareham students were on the team that designed, built, launched and tracked the balloon.

Sam Winterbottom, a fifth grader, described the launch.

“It was stressful,” she said. “When the balloon started blowing up Mr. Palmer yelled ‘stop!’ because something was wrong. We started the countdown again and when it went up everybody went ‘woooaaahhh.’”

Students started working on the project four months ago.

“We learned some very advanced stuff that I didn’t think I would learn about until high school,” said Sam.

Lessons on chemistry, weather, technology, engineering and more are all part of the project. Sixth grade students who completed the project last year act as mentors to the younger students.

Grace Ripely, of Wareham, was one of the mentors.

“It’s about helping them figure out the best way to do the project while also letting them figure it out on their own,” she said.

Zach DeMarco, another mentor in the club, agreed.

“It’s an honor just doing it,” said Zach. “It was worth the work to follow it and see where it landed. That was really fun!”