We are finally home after a 4206 mile road trip, and 18.5 hours of driving from Wyoming. That gave us a lot of time to digest and talk about our incredible eclipse launch experience, and all the lessons we learned from Loki Lego Launcher 3.0. This is what we came up with on the car ride home.
Don’t make last minute changes unless you test
We were given the opportunity to attach an additional GPS tracker to our payload. We attached it suspended in a gimble (sp) the day before launch. We didn’t think it through all the way and consequently our launcher was unstable and spun. When the balloon burst, the gimble swung and knocked our main GoPro over, causing a large portion of the frame to be covered by wood.
Learn from experts; Mentor others
For this launch, we got to work with the Montana Space Grant Consortium (MSGC) and Sent Into Space, which is a commercial ballooning company from England. Two experts in particular spent time with us: Jen Fowler, the assistant director of the MSGC who organized everything and helped us with all phases of our launch, and Dr. June Wang, an atmospheric scientist from SUNY, who talked to us about analyzing data and calibrating instruments. We learned a lot from Chris and Alex from Sent Into Space, who have done over 300 balloon launches! We hope that someday we could be as great role models to others as these mentors have been to us.
Being part of a team
We felt really welcomed as members of the MSGC team. They helped us in all aspects of our launch, from pre-launch testing, to fill calculations, to providing us with additional supplies, to balloon fill, to the launch itself, to helping with the NASA microbes, to helping coordinate recovery. This launch would’ve been a lot different if it was just our family.
Something that really stood out to us was after a difficult recovery involving a 2 1/2 hour hike through cow pastures and feeling disappointed about our solar panel wire, we came back to camp to people who genuinely cared and understood how we felt about our results. That made us feel warm and fuzzy and supported and we appreciated being part of a team.
Test the simple things as well as the complex
When we recovered we found that one of our solar wires had come loose. When we were testing, we had focussed on the electronics and forgot about the mechanics. We hadn’t checked to see if the wires were all connected. Because of this, we didn’t collect any solar data at all. Next time, we need to check even the simplest things.
Be extra prepared
Ms. Fowler not only taught us a lot but also had a lot of equipment we didn’t think we needed. In previous launches, we’d relied on Internet access to receive our APRS signal. Since we had very limited Internet access for this launch, Ms. Fowler lent us a portable Ham Radio we could use to test our APRS. She had extra helium and extra balloons! It was impressive to see how prepared she was for any contingency.
Equipment failures happen
When we put our data into graphs we saw that our pressure data was completely crazy. Instead of a smooth curve it was jagged and inconsistent, leading us to believe our pressure sensor was faulty.
Also, both of our GoPros turned off well before we ran out of battery. When we looked at the video footage, the GoPros turned off at -60 degrees C, the coldest temperature in all our launches. We didn’t insulate the GoPros because in previous launches we had never reached that temperature!
A straight line is not always the fastest distance between A and B
When we were retrieving our launcher we walked in a straight line towards our landing coordinates. To do this, we had to climb a number of seemingly endless ridges, and only later realized that on the other side of us was relatively flat ground. Our hike back to the car was was a lot faster than the hike in because we walked around the ridges.
Follow your own advice
A few days before launch, we told ABC’s Good Morning America, “Even if something goes wrong, which will happen, just keep on trying.” After we recovered the launcher and viewed the footage and data, we were a little bit disappointed because a few things had gone wrong. When we were reminded of what we had said a few days earlier, we had to laugh at ourselves because we had forgotten our own advice.
We had a fantastic eclipse launch experience, and as you can tell, we learned a lot of lessons from it!