By: Sharon Aron Baron
Move over Elon Musk, the astronomy students on Team Aquila at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have begun their own foray into space.
Since 2010, astronomy teacher Kyle Jeter and chemistry teacher Sean Simpson have worked with their students to launch a weather balloon with a craft attached. Their latest mission, Project Aquila VII, incorporated the house from the Disney Pixar movie “Up” – complete with the characters Carl and Russell outside, successfully launching it into space on December 17.
According to Jeter, Project Aquila was conceived when math teacher Frank Krar read about two students at Harvard that had launched a weather balloon for just a few hundred dollars. Jeter couldn’t believe that something could be done so inexpensively and thought, ‘This is what I’m looking for.’
Every year, students create and plan the next launch with Jeter and Simpson’s help. Simpson is the advisor to the project as well as problem-solver. Whenever things come up that need to be fixed, Simpson is the go-to person.
The project manager for the Aquila VII was Justin Hing, a senior whose dream is to attend Stanford University and study aerospace engineering. He oversaw 20 students who worked for 10-12 weeks after school. Students created the house-like craft and mounted three GoPro cameras, two Arduinos – an open-source platform used for building electronics projects, one GPS, one MicroTrack, heat pads, a siren and LED lights.
“It’s authentic learning,” said Jeter. Students worked in a small group environment solving problems much like they would in an engineering firm. “If you succeed, you can feel great about it. But you can fail in this. This is something where there are a lot of life lessons that if you mess up, it hurts the whole team. It ends the project.”
Though they’ve had many successful launches, in 2016 the Aquila VI was lost in the Atlantic Ocean when the GPS onboard unexpectedly lost communication after 53 minutes. Jeter said it was lost somewhere on the north side of Grand Bahama Island. This time, they were determined to avoid the ocean as well as having to retrieve the Aquila VII by boat. They received FAA clearance and mapped their course starting on the west coast of Florida in Naples so that the craft would end up in a field in the middle of the state – and away from people and property.
On the day of the launch, they suffered a setback when they lost their weather balloon and one of their cameras wasn’t ready. This made them postpone their launch for two weeks. After regrouping, they tried a second time, just two days after the SpaceX CRS-13 Falcon 9 launch which motivated Jeter. During the second launch, they used a bed sheet to hold the balloon down while filling it with helium so they didn’t lose it.
The second time was a success and the craft took only 30 minutes to reach an altitude of 100,000 feet and speeds of 89 mph in the jet stream before the balloon burst and parachuted back to Earth. Then the craft fell close to the predicted landing spot in a sugar cane field south of Lake Okeechobee.
Jeter said the sugar cane field was unlike anything he had to trek through. While the GPS gave a general location of the craft, the field was so large and dense that they spent over 30 minutes searching for the craft before they found it.
The mission was a success and the craft and its data was retrieved safely. “I think it went very well and we overcame the setbacks,” said Project Manager Hing. “I felt proud.”
Marjory Stoneman Douglas Principal Ty Thompson said, “I think it’s been an awesome opportunity for kids to get involved with the space program and astronomy and generate a craft that can go up 100,000 feet up – and to be able to actually recover it. It’s just mind-boggling to me.”
The planning and execution were all recorded by documentary filmmaker David Hogg and his team. Hogg, a senior, who’s hopes he is accepted into UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, said that this was his first documentary. He filmed the Aquila Team using various cameras and drones and incorporated the GoPro footage attached to the craft into the film.
After viewing the documentary, Parkland Mayor Christine Hunschofsky was impressed. “This is an amazing program and we are so very fortunate that we have teachers like Mr. Jeter and Mr. Simpson that care so much they go a step above what is in the classroom to provide the students with this enriching experience.”
Jeter said that this launch was proof that this is real life and there can be failures. “We were at the point – and about to quit, but everyone showed up again. I was so worried the first time that happened that half the people wouldn’t show up again, but we actually had extra people here that weren’t here the first time to share this experience and that makes it all worth it.”
Student David Hogg contributed to this article through his interviews in his documentary.