Journey to the Edge of our Planet
Description: Picture of the earth from the Edge of Space
The reflection of the earth's curvature was clearly visible in my eyes. Fascinated, immersed, and enthralled accurately describe what I felt at that moment. Then a small yet significant thought made its presence known to me. It whispered, "maybe you can do this yourself?".
I was suddenly jolted back into reality when my mom called out my name resulting in an acute awareness of where I was. I was watching TV on our couch more specifically a YouTube video of someone that had sent a GoPro to the edge of space (approx. 100,000 ft into the Stratosphere). They did so using a High Altitude Weather Balloon (HAB). I had randomly stumbled across that video and did not even know what a HAB was. But something in me told me I should find out. So, I did, I spent the rest of my day deeply researching it and by the end of it, I had decided something. The whispering voice was back, and it said, "I will do it".
Consumed by a newly found confidence, I had yet to answer a very big question. How? How will I get the funds for what seems like a multi-thousand-dollar project? How will I get accurate geography-specific legal information to even execute this? How will I find the right guidance? Although the number of questions yet to be answered was overwhelming, the passion to find the answers was much greater. For the next 15 days, I was completely determined to bring this project to fruition. I contacted my high school physics teacher, read numerous articles, tried to contact people that had done it specifically in Fredericton, read more blogs, and watched countless more YouTube videos.
All was going well until the end of these 15 days. Instead of being encouraged by all the research I had done, I was starting to realize the ginormous scope of this project and how it was clearly outside my capabilities. For more context, this was all during the lockdown and I had freshly graduated high school waiting to start my Engineering degree in the fall. After not hearing back from many people I had sent emails to, I felt delusional for even thinking of this project as a possibility for myself. With little to no thread left to hold onto, I decided to quit.
Reflecting on this after all these months, I am reminded of a quote by Marianne Williamson. It is as follows, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us." Deciding to quit was the easy way out. I would not have to find out if I am capable or not if I never try. So, basking in my comfort zone, I closed the door of this project never intending to open it again.
The story could have easily ended here but I am so glad it did not. A few months passed and I was in the depths of my engineering degree. Online school, lack of social interaction, a huge workload, trying to balance several extracurriculars, working part-time, and fulfilling personal needs were how I spent all my time. If I had to describe how I was feeling, it would be an emotionless robot on a production line. I was missing a sense of purpose and meaning. It is not that I did not enjoy engineering, it is that I did not know why I was even trying to execute this balancing act.
One evening as I was finishing up my calculus homework, I felt everything mentioned above intensify. Crudely put, the insignificance of my existence was overbearing. Does anything I do even matter? How is what I do any different from the thousands of first-year engineering students across the world? Yet again hefty questions, no answers. In pursuit of answering, I was trying to remember the last time I was truly inspired. It was when I was watching that GoPro video showing the edge of the Earth.
This time intentionally, I went on YouTube and typed "GoPro Edge of Space". I started skipping through a few videos but instead of being reminded of the fascination, I was reminded of my shortcomings. All the how-to videos were technical and instructional. None talked about doubt, belief, or even encouragement. None except one.
It was by a popular science communicator Emily Calandrelli (also known as The Space Gal). In her video, she said she wanted to do this engineering project to announce her pregnancy. The female representation was striking and one I did not want to admit to myself played a factor. It clearly did. She said she had four engineering degrees (two of which were from MIT) and still had huge doubts about the execution because it had been 5 years since she last did a technical project. Turns out, the confidence in our abilities is a result of technical competence and not the other way around. We only need a sense of unwavering self-belief to get started.
Her few minutes of encouragement were enough to rekindle my fire. I decided to not be afraid of the light this time. Another realization I had at the moment was about self-image. I wondered, "If I want to do something, can I or not?". I wanted to find out the intensity of my wants.
The door opens again.
I then spent the upcoming weekend making a list of reasons why I was unsuccessful to even begin my first attempt. The project feels too large? Get more people. Too expensive to personally execute? Seek out external funding opportunities. Scared of legal implications? Delegate the task to someone who has been in Fredericton and Canada for more than 3 years.
There. That is how seemingly impossible feats are undertaken. One step at one a time. Solving one issue at a time. It took me a few more weeks to think of potential teammates, to redo a lot of the research, make a general budget, and be sure of what I am talking about myself. After a concrete plan was made, it was time to execute it.
I contacted Ryan Whitney and John Estafanos two engineering students from UNB whom I had known from Air Cadets and knew had a general interest in aerospace. I did not personally know them and making new friends during online school was quite difficult. This was a shot in the dark and although not ideal, I had to make the most of the cards I had been given. I had also never done an engineering project by myself let alone lead a team of three.
On the 19th of November 2020, we had the first group meeting and thus StratoFredericton was born. Over the next 8 months, we met consistently on weekends for several hours to discuss engineering project management, teamwork, technical details, legal rules, and funding applications. I could go in-depth into how exactly to build a weather balloon but there are ample resources on the internet for that already. My team now also has a Google drive of everything one could possibly need to launch a HAB. If you are interested, feel free to contact me. With that being said, the stories and lessons seem more worthy of reflection.
Description: StratoFredericton logo designed by Jagriti
I wanted this project to carry some symbolic meaning as well. I decided to contact a local organization called the New Brunswick Environmental Network (NBEN) to send their logo and a message from their side and capture it in front of the curvature of the Earth. It would be a message that the youth of New Brunswick cares about the environment and take climate change seriously. They agreed and I went on to hand paint it on a poster to add an artistic touch.
Description: EN poster from the edge of space.
Another important lesson was clear role division. I was hesitant on calling myself the project lead even though I was doing most if not all of the leader-like activities such as: delegating tasks, moderating meetings, providing vision, and combining different aspects of the project. I thought it would make me seem unnecessarily assertive when all I wanted was for the three of us to feel equally a part of the project. I realized that is not the case and defining roles actually aids in the smooth running of a project. It also felt important to give other girls more opportunities to see females in positions of leadership and taking initiative which is why I made it one of our mission objectives.
Description: An example post from the StratoFredericton Instagram page
Fast forward 6 months, we were starting to enter the launch phase of the project. I created an official Instagram page for StratoFredericton and we let everyone know about it to create some buzz. Deciding on a launch day was quite difficult. There were more than 4 variables that had to be exactly right for us to be able to launch. We did decide on a day and started preparing hard for it.
The day arrived and we had a few enthusiastic spectators (mostly our family and friends). Everything went alright until it didn’t. Our balloon was not able to lift our 4-pound payload. It was a very preventable mistake but there are so many different articles on building a HAB that it is hard to be full proof. However, it was our mistake and we had to fix it. As disappointed as we were, it was one of the best things that could have happened. It gave us a good taste of what aerospace engineering is actually like and how resilience is an important factor for success in the field.
Description: A picture from our first unsuccessful launch attempt
We got back and came up with a plan for what next, adjusted our budget, and tried troubleshooting for a better launch next time. Finding the next good launch day was another challenge we faced. It took us weeks of effort to give it another shot. I personally spent hours researching everything on balloon lift and reconsidering the design of some other components that worked fine but not great in our first launch. It really helped make the project more robust.
Second launch day comes around and all of us were determined to make this one a success. We worked diligently and tried to make sure nothing surprises us that day. The launch was successful. Everyone around us clapped and cheered and the three of us felt a sense of relief. But that is only the first part of success. Recovering our payload would be the second part and that was showing some signs of problems.
Description: A picture of our successful second launch just before lift off
Before I get into that, I cannot help but remember a minor detail. Right after our launch which was in a public park, two very little girls came running towards me and asked me what we were doing. I explained it to them to the best of my abilities and made sure that they knew engineering/science is a possibility for them as well. That was a nice touch to the day.
Back to the payload recovery. That is done using a GPS device and ours stopped transmitting right after the launch even though we had done several tests beforehand where it worked perfectly. I was starting to get really worried that we would not be able to find the payload, but we decided to drive towards the general direction that our flight predictor software had shown. But that had a 10-mile variance. We drove two hours and I was in the backseat doing everything I could including researching the GPS device, calling customer service, and thinking of the implications of the failure. We got to the general area drove around for a bit more.
Description: An example of flight prediction done before launch
We then declared that the project had failed and started to return. All of us were devastated by this and I started thinking of what that meant. At around 40 minutes of driving back, we got a text. Someone had found our payload and they were contacting us. We were completely shocked and excited by the news and started driving to their said location. You might be wondering how they knew who to call but I had made sure to include a waterproof contact info card on the outside of the payload.
Description: Picture taken with the people that rescued our payload
Turned out the payload had landed on Grand Lake and someone canoeing located it and rescued it. We later saw in the footage that water was starting to slowly seep into the payload meaning if the timing was even a little bit off, it could easily have drowned. Miracles. Miracles. Miracles. That is all I could think of. We got the payload from them and as we are returning, I stopped and realized that one of the Go Pros is still on. I took it in my hands and stepped away from John and Ryan as they were setting up the car.
The reflection of the earth's curvature was clearly visible in my eyes. Fascinated, immersed, and enthralled accurately describe what I felt at that moment. Then a small yet significant thought made its presence known to me. This time it whispered, "You did it".
Description: A wholesome picture of the StratoFredericton team
Description: A picture taken just after the balloon burst
Endnote: All the photos in the article are mine. The balloon made it to an altitude of 103,000 ft! Although the story above is from my perspective, I must thank people whose support has been paramount in the success of StratoFredericton. Foremost, my mom who has been my rock since the conception of the idea, my dad for providing relevant tips on project management and organization, my sister for encouragement and logistics, my best friend for helping me bounce back from several disappointments, my teammates John and Ryan (and their parents) for everything they have done and all the hard work they put in, Engineering Endowment Fund at UNB for believing in our vision, the kind people that contacted us after rescuing our payload and finally everyone that has been supporting StratoFredericton through our Instagram page and personal friendships.