GLOVERSVILLE – Once a weather balloon is launched – payload attached – Gloversville Middle School science teacher Chris Murphy is behind the wheel, ready to drive to wherever the landing site might be. In the backseat are students following the airship on computers and punching in data that helps determine his directions.
The advisor for the school district’s High Altitude Achievement club has been going on these adventures with students since 2013, and ham radio operators along the route and someone at a home base help direct, too. The experience varies from a car caravan to a single vehicle, and from students on a second or third launch to their very first. The seventeenth, and most recent launch, on March 17 was, however, a first. It was the beginning of a launching era including eighth graders in the experience.
“I was pulling a lot of juniors and seniors and the next year they’re gone. And so I lost all of my experience,” Murphy said. “So I started bringing them in younger, from ninth grade. And I started thinking to myself, ‘You know what, I can bring in an eighth grader, an eighth grader can do it, they can do it, they can learn quickly.’”
Anna Pettit and Blaze Conye-Gillen were the two 13 year olds at the lift off in Blodgett Mills in Cortland County, and then Murphy’s co-pilots. Normally, Murphy said, a balloon can reach over 100,000 feet at its apex and the group tries to target Canajoharie as the landing spot for the balloon. From wherever they let go, they usually have time to go grab a meal, get back in the car and get to the site by the time of touchdown. On the 17th, the balloon burst at 87,000 feet and Pettit and Coyne-Gillen had to begin calculating its descent rate while still on the move.
Their teacher said it was probably wind, or maybe the balloon was overfilled, but really it could have been a bunch of different things. However it happened, they were not headed for a place as close to home anymore, it would be Cherry Valley, and the journey was about to become even more exciting.
“That’s my rush is listening to them. Hearing them in the car, you know, with doing the data, because that’s what it’s all about,” Murphy said. “They’re actually functionally doing things that they probably would have never done in class. And they’re doing it on the road with a phone.
“And it’s every two minutes, we get a ping. And so they are my eyes and ears because I cannot when I’m driving, I need to pay attention to the road. Because I do have two 13 year olds in the car.”
Prior to launch day, the older students help Murphy with work related to piecing together the payload. The most recent one included QR code cards sent to Teachers in Space, a nonprofit focused on stimulating student interest in STEM learning by providing teachers with space experiments and industry connections, from students at different schools in New York – scanned at launch and recovery – and a prototype of the Serenity satellite to be put into orbit by FireFly Aerospace, which contained a 30-sensor microcomputer and two cameras.
Throughout the years of the club, it has been a jumping off point for Gloversville students to recognize passions for science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers. Murphy can easily reflect and think of former students chasing those dreams, including 2016 graduate Austin Reese, now working on his master’s at Cornell.
Reese took a Teachers in Space trip to Nevada with Murphy, director of High Altitude Balloon Operations for the organization, during the spring of his senior year. While there, the then-18 year old stunned a retired NASA engineer, according to Murphy, by quickly helping to design a piece that still to this day flies in the Perlan glider.
The proud teacher sees no reason why current students can’t reach the same heights as alumni, especially as new opportunities arise. In December, the club launched a satellite on a Firefly rocket called Alpha. That launch, like so many firsts, did not make it into space. But, the Gloversville crew and its satellite have their spot reserved already on Alpha Two, and the QR code cards from the balloon launch will make the trip, too.
“As they move up through the years, they’ll see how close we are in Gloversville to being, you know, on rockets,” Murphy said, referencing his younger students. “I mean, no offense, our experiment [is] going on a rocket – granted an old one, but that doesn’t mean that these two can’t come up with something that is going to ride on the next rocket.”
Pettit joined the club in September and, for her, there’s just something about building the satellite, which was her responsibility on launch day, that she finds more interesting.
“It’s super cool…to think like that, we could do stuff like that,” Pettit said. “It’s cooler than, like, sitting at home and playing a video game. Like it’s more fun to get out and do stuff like this than to just sit at home.”
And two weeks before the launch, Coyne-Gillen might very well have planned to be sitting at his house that Thursday because wasn’t part of the team until just days before the trip. According to Murphy, who is Coyne-Gillen’s earth science teacher, the eighth grader had a build up of positive behavior points the school gives out to students. At the time, Murphy was offering a chance to just go along for the launch for a certain number of those points, and he asked Coyne-Gillen who said he was saving his points up. Well, the teacher followed up and asked why not just join the club, and the boy said he could do that.
Murphy ended up needing Coyne-Gillen to go, the student stepped up, and found that he really enjoyed holding and setting up the balloon at his first launch. He’s motivated now to do more. One day he said, “I want to tie [off] the balloon!”
The 21-year veteran of the teaching profession has nine in the club these days, and each year some are not even working on the science. Some are in charge of photography or social media. There is a role for everyone. They build bonds and they build confidence in themselves
This is what it’s all about according to him. He wants to get students involved.
“When kids say, ‘Oh, he’s smarter than me,’ I say, ‘No, no. He has more experience than you do,’” Murphy said. “It’s about experiences. The more you experience, the more you know.”