The Omaha Composite Squadron took giant leap in its Aerospace Education Program in 2018. Beginning in 2017, the squadron Aerospace leaders began to brainstorm an activity in which all aspects of the Cadet Program could be utilized, and which would allow Cadets and Seniors to work together towards a unified goal. That activity was the launching of a payload to the edge of space using a helium-filled High Altitude Balloon (HAB).
Our research began by consulting with organizations in the area that had accomplished this task, and learn from them, what kind of minimum requirements and expectations we should hope for as novices in this area. In October of 2017, 2d Lt Kirk Rasmussen, Omaha Composite Squadron’s Aerospace Officer presented the proposal to the cadets. Cadets were separated into various groups, including payload, digital payload and data, Launch and Recovery teams.
Over the next 6 months, OCS members worked together as teams to have a working project ready for a spring launch date. That day came on April 28th, 2018. The Chalco Hills Recreation Area parking lot was selected as the launch site. An FAA NOTAM was filed in advance for the local area, and after carefully preparing and testing the working condition of all electronic sensors, cameras, receivers and transmitters in the payload harness, the parachute and balloon were attached. Seniors supervised the filling of the Balloon with Helium, as cadets carefully prevented it from drifting or swaying towards the ground.
Soon, the countdown was initiated, and the balloon lifted into the cool Nebraska skies and began climbing slowly in a southeasterly direction. The Omaha Composite Squadron Office became the mission base for the tracking and coordinating the retrieval of the balloon, while a recovery team departed in the squadron van in the general direction of the HAB’s travel. Communications between Misison Base and the recovery team consisted of HAM radios and eventually text messages to the team once they were out of radio range.
After reaching an altitude of 35,000 feet near Nebraska City, the HAB crossed into Iowa and began a rapid climb, reaching 60,000 feet by the time it reached Hamburg, IA. It then turned east and continued passing quickly to altitudes that surpassed everyone’s expectations. The HAb finally reached an altitude of 103,385 feet over Shenandoah, IA, and popped. The payload began a fast vertical descent for nearly 40,000 feet into denser atmosphere and the wind began carrying it south into Missouri at 98 mph! The Recovery team, which had reached Shenandoah and had been directly under the HAB, would several hours of travel time before reaching the final landing. Senior members at Misison base were closely following the track of the HAB online via the SPOT E.L.T. transmitter, and the HAM radio APRS system online. The final resting point of the payload was 2 miles northwest of Burlington Junction, MO.
Mission Base transmitted the last known location of the payload sensors via text message to the Recovery team. The recovery team was only able to reach a dead-end road about 2a mile away from the target location. They then deployed a UAS towards the last known location of the target while receiving live video imagery from the location below the UAS. Within minutes, the team was able to locate the bright red parachute from the air! After noting the actual coordinates, the team traveled on foot to find the intact payload resting on the banks of the Nodaway River – only 50 feet away from the water!
As an Aerospace activity, the High Altitude Project was an unqualified success, and a team-building experience that taught everyone involved how to work towards a common goal, and how the actions of several teams working together on different aspects of a project can come together to reach new heights.