By Daphne Psaledakis
It’s 6:49 on a Tuesday morning and a dozen middle school students are huddled around a giant white helium-filled weather balloon on the Lower Campus athletic field. Their breath is visible in the cold morning air, and their eyes are bleary from a long night crashed in the tech lab, making final calculations on a science project that they hoped would be out of this world.
On the field, the countdown begins. “10… 9… 8… 7… 6…” The students tighten their collective grip on the balloon and its long roped tail. “5… 4… 3… 2… 1…” They release it – and in doing so culminate the ultimate STEAM project and become one of the first schools anyone is aware of with an actual space program.
The balloon, which carried a tiny camera to capture images of the curvature of the earth and the darkness of space, traveled approximately 95 miles, reached an altitude of 82,266 feet, and at its fastest speed was traveling more than 100 mph.
“We wanted to do something special that allowed students to tackle a real life problem rather than the kinds of problems presented in typical academia,” said Mike Mahon, Assistant Head of School, who launched what he dubbed Project X as a challenge to an elite hand-picked group of technology students.
Mahon joined forces with alum Jason Goldman, who was the Mission Director for Project X, to come up with a project that would increase student engagement in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and general tinkering.
To apply for the mysterious mission, the students wrote an essay showcasing their STEAM qualifications and explaining how they would contribute to the team.
“It was an amazing experience,” eighth-grade team member Wendy Lazo-Dowdy told an All-School audience after the launch. “We all launched something into space. We will remember this our entire lives.”
The balloon popped at about 70,000 feet, and the capsule, attached to a parachute, drifted to a remote area south of Palmdale. Early efforts to locate the capsule were unsuccessful, but mission leaders kept at it and retrieved the capsule just after the school year ended. Now that they have it back, team members will study the footage and then push on to plan the next mission. Project X is the first of what will hopefully be many ventures into space. Part of the mission was to establish a space program by conducting a series of mission activities high above the Earth.
“It’s my belief that within the span of my career, OVS will put something into orbit,” Mahon said. “Everyone I know laughs at me when I say that, but dreaming big and inspiring others is the noblest end of scientific and technological pursuits. I can’t wait to say, ‘I told you so.’ ”