Written by Adler Teen Intern Sidney Madden,
It was a scorching hot Chicago day when I arrived at the Adler. I was not in the chipperest of moods because it was 7:30 a.m. and I yearned to still be tucked away in my bed. As I walked up and out to meet the campers, I saw speckles of bright green shirts already on the lawn, eagerly waiting for the day to begin. They didn’t technically have to be here until 8ish, but there stood at least ten of them, ready to work on their experiments before the launch.
As we headed downstairs, the campers tried to figure out the frustrating Wombat game. When we entered the project space, the campers dispersed to perfect their experiments. A group of girls were making oobleck in the corner, playing with the different ratios of baking soda and water for the perfect consistency to send up to near space. Another group vigorously worked to put the finishing touches on a glider they had constructed in a day. One boy separated his clovers into Ziploc baggies: one to keep on the ground as a control and another to put in the balloon.
At around 9:00, we boarded the vans with experiments and flight equipment in tow. The campers excitedly chattered as we initially took off, making predictions of what would happen and formulating hypotheses. Their excitement was contagious. Quickly, we shifted gears to playing the ABC game and more Wombat.
“LISTEN!” Becca, who already figured out Wombat, said. “If this is a Wombat, and that is a Wombat, are you a Wombat?”
“No?” I guessed.
Groans from around the van followed. “No, Sidney, LISTEN. If that is a Wombat and this is a Wombat, is Becca a Wombat?”
“Yes?” More groans ensued.
The game quickly died down when it became apparent I would not be able to accurately identify a Wombat.
We finally arrived at Koerner Airport, the rustic Kankakee airport, at about 11:30. Airik and Ethan stressed to the campers which gate to go to in case they got lost during the launch. I quickly wrote down the gate number on my arm in case I got lost too. Geza, the flight supervisor, and the flight prep team quickly began setting up for launch. Airik and Ethan helped the other campers setting up their experiments.
I mostly observed and took photos of the process. I got the opportunity to talk to one of the college interns who worked in the Far Horizons lab, and hear about his experiment. He and another intern were working on a cut-down system, that if successful, would be used during the total solar eclipse next summer. The campers’ experiments weren’t nearly as complex as this, but one girl named Meghan came close. This was not Meghan’s first Mission: Near Space camp, and in fact it was her fifth summer at the Adler. She had spent all week hacking a camera and working in the Far Horizons lab to capture cosmic rays. Meghan was also on the flight prep team with Geza. I walked over to check up on her progress.
“How’s it going Meghan?” I asked, “Are you excited?”
“Are you kidding?” She responded, “It’s like Christmas morning for me.”
Not long after that, the largest balloon I had ever seen was pumped up. Not the party balloons you see at Jewel, but a massive cream-colored, egg-shaped balloon. The flight team worked to attach and secure the experiments to the balloon. Then the interns took over as they made sure the cut-down system was in place. Carefully, the balloon was moved from the safe and cool garage of Koerner Airport to the sweltering hot outside world. As last minute touches were made, Airik and Ethan rallied the campers to stand on one side.
“10! 9! 8! 7! 6! 5! 4! 3! 2! 1! BLASTOFF!” We screeched.
Geza let go of the balloon. We watched it go up further and further until it became just a dot in the stratosphere, but there was an excited, nervous atmosphere back on the ground with the campers. Many continued to look for the balloon long after we couldn’t see it.
The launch took way longer than usual. It was already 2:00 p.m. by the time we all piled back into the vans. We switched seats in the car so the navigation and retrieval teams could be closer to Ken and Airik. We would have lunch depending on where the balloon was. We ended up at a classy Kankakee KFC, where the campers ate and Ken tracked the balloon. KFC, unintentionally, became the stakeout headquarters. The campers passed time by catching new Pokemon and playing Uno.
The adult crew huddled around a long counter, watching the balloon’s whereabouts. They came back with the news that the cut-down system didn’t work, and it wouldn’t land until late tonight.
“We can stay!” Creighton shouted.
“Yeah, we can wait!” Truman chimed in.
It was decided we would go home to return the campers to their parents, and then the adult crew would head back out to find the balloon.
Disappointed kids made their way to the vans. The excitement was noticeably gone and the car ride back home was silent. Campers fell asleep, others listened to music, some just glumly stared out the window. I felt horrible for these kids, it was like waking up on Christmas morning to a stocking full of coal.
The next day, the campers were able to get their experiments back. The oobleck was cold, the glider broken, and the clover spent to near space was more alive than its on-the-ground counterpart. Meghan’s camera hadn’t worked, but Michelle invited her to join the Far Horizons team as a volunteer to fix her mistakes.
I firmly believe there are certain days I know I will remember. Watching an egg-shaped balloon float to 70,000 feet above are one of those days. More than that, I will remember trying to figure out Wombat with the campers. I will remember watching them carefully plan their experiments. Above all else, I will remember the excitement in the air when the campers let the balloon go.
Ray was my fellow photographer, and actually gave me quite a few tips. In case you were wondering, Ray does have a Go Pro around his head and a Canon in his hands. Double the cameras, double the fun.