The Great American Eclipse of 2017 is in the books. For the student-led University of Kentucky Solar Eclipse Ballooning Team, August 21 was the culmination of over 18 months of intense preparation for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Twenty-four students participated on the team, which relied upon eight team leads who handled everything from public relations to search and recovery. Using two high-altitude weather balloons, the team planned to not only capture photography of the eclipse, but livestream it from between 60,000-80,000 feet.
Mechanical engineering senior Virginia “Ginny” Smith served as a mission control leader for the team. The longest tenured member, Ginny attended a ballooning workshop at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in January 2015. The information she received at the workshop became working knowledge she shared with team members who joined over the next two and a half years. Below, Ginny walks through the events leading up to the eclipse, highlights her team’s challenges and successes and reflects on her unforgettable experience.
My half of the team left Kenlake Lodge at 4:00 a.m. Although we expected to hit heavy traffic, we only saw 20-25 cars on the hour and a half drive to Russellville. After making a quick stop at McDonalds for breakfast, we reached Russellville High School around 5:45 and unloaded our equipment into an air-conditioned classroom. Since our launch timeline didn’t start until 10:40 a.m., we unexpectedly found ourselves with several hours to chill and wait for Mollye’s half of the team to arrive from Bowling Green.
While unpacking our equipment onto the baseball field at 10:40, we ran into a new and unexpected problem. We brought two ground stations—a primary and a backup—as a redundant measure in case a catastrophic issue developed with the primary system. We were glad we had a spare because we soon discovered that key hardware for our ground station servo was lost during transit. After searching vehicles, equipment boxes and the area for a while, we decided we couldn’t look any longer and substituted the parts from our spare system. That left the backup out of commission, but that is why you bring a spare!
Originally, we wanted to catch eclipse totality at 100,000 feet. However, we learned from a few of our ten practice launches that these weather balloons could burst at lower altitudes such as 80,000 feet. It’s always variable, so everyone started thinking, “Well, we don’t want it to burst and miss totality.” In order for the balloon to be above the clouds and still capture totality, we set our altitude goal to capture eclipse totality between 60,000-80,000 feet. If we filled our balloons to ascend about 1,000 feet per minute, we would reach 60,000 feet in a hour, so we scheduled our first balloon to launch at 12:20 and the second directly after. With totality occurring at 1:24 p.m., a 12:20 launch would allow time to reach our altitude goal. We then worked backwards from launch to create our T-90 timeline. That allowed us time to assemble everything, test it, inflate the balloons, get everything on the flight string and hold the balloons for launch.
The day gave us weather we had been dreaming of for years—a warm day in August that wasn’t windy. That kind of weather made handling the balloons much easier than it could have been. They were easy to inflate and we didn’t have to pull anyone out of the crowd to help control the balloons like we did in practice launches with high winds.
We had two balloons, so our 24-member team was divided into two groups with Mollye as mission control for one and me as mission control for the other. With 20 minutes left in our countdown to launch, we were testing payloads, starting our video streams and addressing any small issues that came up.
Per FAA regulations we were required to fly each balloon with a cut-down mechanism. That meant we were given specific cut-down string to use between our payloads and the balloon. The team had concerns about the string not being strong enough, but we decided to use it because it wasn’t a problem in our practice launches. Mollye Malone counted down to zero and her group released the first balloon to the cheers of the crowd. These cheers turned to exclamations as the cut-down string snapped almost immediately. While we had tested the string for static strength, the weight of our payloads plus the initial jerk must have been too much. The balloon went up and everything else came down. The last 3-4 payloads weren’t even out of the team members’ hands so they didn’t hit the ground and only one of the payloads that fell had any damage. We were very lucky the balloon didn’t get much higher before the cut-down string broke.
I am extremely proud of how everyone responded. Nobody panicked. Mollye’s group grabbed our backup balloon and began inflating it. While they scrambled to get it ready, I focused on launching the second balloon. I gave the countdown and at 12:36, we released it without any issues. Mollye’s backup balloon successfully launched at 12:54. We breathed sighs of relief as both balloons were on their way.
With our launches completed, we had about 30 minutes until totality. We passed eclipse glasses around, but didn’t have a lot of time to mark the moon’s progress because everyone was focused on doing their jobs. But once we saw we were getting streaming from the cameras and everything was working the way we had hoped, we were able to relax. We all showed our excitement in different ways as the temperature cooled and surrounding light became a strange gray. Through the glasses I saw the sun go from a small crescent to a curve that gradually disappeared from bottom to top. Then, the sun was gone. Everyone, including our team members, visiting teams and spectators, cheered as totality began.
What was totality like where we were? It was not at all what I had expected. Instead of pitch blackness, we got a 360 degree sunset. Imagine a sunset everywhere you look! I could see stars and planets almost instantly. As for the eclipse itself, the corona was absolutely breathtaking. I had seen beautiful pictures of eclipses, but had thought many were doctored to look amazing. I realized that what I was seeing really did match the photos. I thought, “This is something that actually happens in nature and it’s beautiful.” I was sitting next to Mollye, who had been dreaming of seeing an eclipse since she was eight years old. Frank Sinatra sang “Fly Me to the Moon” through the baseball field’s speakers.
Totality lasted for a little over two and a half minutes. It wasn’t enough.
As soon as the sun emerged, suddenly it was light again and the temperature started rising. It happened that fast. While the eclipse wasn’t “over,”—you could see the waning eclipse through protective glasses until 2:51 p.m., the most important part had ended. Now it was time to send our recovery teams after the balloons and start packing our equipment.
As far as balloon recovery, we were both lucky and unlucky. Because there wasn’t much wind, the balloons landed in the direction of the Russellville Airport, only about ten miles away. If it had been a windy day, they could have soared all the way to Tennessee. The recovery teams were able to find the first balloon in a soybean field right away, but the second balloon was proved more difficult to locate due to conflicting landing coordinates. Despite their efforts, they couldn’t recover it before nightfall, so we detoured to Russellville the next day and eventually found the second balloon also in another soybean field. Our second recovery effort wasn’t a planned stop, so we didn’t arrive back at UK to unload equipment until about 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday. On Wednesday, we started our fall classes. It was, to say the least, a whirlwind couple of days.
Overall, we had a lot of success with the payloads we sent. Over half of our cameras caught totality, and we were happy with that. The videos and images we recovered are amazing. In terms of our livestream, we had both streams up and going. Of the 60 teams that had this technology, we saw that we were one of 13 teams streaming during the eclipse flights.
I think what we did is remarkable for a student-led team. This wasn’t just one person’s project. Since last summer, I worked alongside amazing team leaders: Mollye Malone, Patrick Heelan, Matthew Graham, Colton Pugh, Isaac Rowe, Christen Setters, Tristan Hagerman and Stannard Phelps. Our team of enthusiastic students representing seven different majors willingly gave Saturdays for practice launches and long evenings for planning and design sessions. Friends have asked if I will miss the project; what I will mainly miss is working with the other students on the team. I spent time with teammates who have a passion for engineering and worked hard, planning over a year for the eclipse. It was a really incredible experience supported by NASA Space Grant and so many at UK. I learned so much that I could apply to my career—possibly as a NASA engineer—and will remember the experience for the rest of my life.
I haven’t looked at the 2024 total solar eclipse yet, but I know I want to be there. I’m going to tell my friends that if they are within 90% of totality, do whatever you can to get to totality. Otherwise you don’t really get the full experience of the eclipse. Believe me: you don’t want to miss it!