Dan Brown of Bangor got the call from his 18-year-old daughter, Paige, on the afternoon of Tuesday, Nov. 8, asking him to drive to Canada and pick up her balloon.
Paige, a 2016 Bangor High School graduate who is a first-year student at Stanford University in California, knew it was a big ask.
Especially when she realized the balloon, an experimental high-altitude latex balloon launched by Stanford’s Student Space Initiative, of which she’s a member, was going to land in the middle of the road, somewhere near Maine’s western border with Quebec, in the middle of the night.
“It’s kind of a crazy coincidence that it landed so close to Maine,” she said, by phone from California on Thursday. “Fortunately, I had people to call that could go get it.”
While still a senior at BHS, Brown earlier this year won the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search and its accompanying $150,000 scholarship, for her senior research project at BHS, “Identifying and Remediating the Sources of Pollution in Impaired Bangor Streams.”
As a new student, she this semester joined the Stanford Student Space Initiative as the balloon team’s lead mechanical engineering specialist. The SSSI has several divisions, including rockets, satellites, policy and biology. The balloon program launches high-altitude latex balloons to try to break records in altitude, distance and duration and to gather atmospheric data.
“The goal eventually is to have a balloon circumnavigate the globe,” Paige said. “With this balloon, we crossed the continent, which is also a big achievement.”
Brown and her team of fellow students launched the balloon on Friday, Nov. 4, from Modesto, California. Over the course of 79 hours and 20 minutes, it traveled northeast at an altitude of between 19 and 20 kilometers toward the Great Lakes, before traversing Ontario and part of Quebec, eventually landing just 7 miles from the Maine border.
The previous record for length of time a latex high-altitude balloon has stayed in the air was 70 hours, but the SSSI team managed to keep theirs aloft for 79 hours and 20 minutes. By contrast, most high-altitude balloons rarely stay in the air for more than a few hours.
The balloon is outfitted with a tank of helium gas and a valve, a container of ballast and a payload box containing a GPS sensor, atmospheric sensors and complicated electronics that control the valve and the ballast — hence its nickname “Val-Bal.”
SSSI members can monitor the GPS coordinates of their balloons, temperature, altitude and many other factors from the Stanford campus. Tuesday evening, as it became clear this balloon was losing altitude and gas, they began to track just where it might land.
“We started realizing it was going to come down near the Maine border. So I called my Dad, and said, ‘Dad, would you be willing to drive to Canada to get the balloon?’” Paige Brown said. “He said yes. We assumed it would probably land somewhere in the woods or on a farm or something. But that didn’t happen.”
Instead, the balloon landed right in the middle of a road, about 7 miles from the Maine-Canada border.
“We were really worried that it would get run over and destroyed or stolen,” she said. “So I called my Dad back up later that night and said, ‘Um, could you go now?’”
Dan Brown got in his car and started driving. As he was on the road, Paige Brown and her team saw that the balloon had been moved from the road — by whom they didn’t know, but the GPS showed it wasn’t where it landed anymore.
“I didn’t get there until close to 2 a.m.,” Dan Brown said. “It was on some farm. A farmer picked it up. I went up to their door and knocked on it. They didn’t speak a word of English, so I had to kind of mime what it was. They finally figured out I was talking about the balloon. It was quite a scene.”
The residents of the farm said they’d actually moved the balloon once again to a farm next door, so Dan Brown had to go over there and do the whole thing over again — though in this instance, one of the residents actually spoke some English.
Dan Brown retrieved the balloon, drove back to Bangor and got in early Wednesday morning. On Thursday morning, he brought the balloon into Bangor High School, where students in the school’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Academy Skyped with Paige Brown about the balloon team, SSSI and the journey their balloon took.
“It was really great to get Paige in contact with the younger students,” Bangor High School principal Paul Butler said. “Not only is this an incredible coincidence, but the message she had for the students is really crucial, which is, ‘Stay curious.’ Things you do in high school are practical and are the foundation for future success.”
Paige Brown actually worked with high-altitude balloons while in high school — first as a freshman at Bangor High School participating in a balloon launch at the University of Maine and then another balloon launch at UMaine during her junior year at BHS.
“You never know what things you’ll do that will come back to you later,” Paige said. “You never know what you’ll end up being passionate about. … This was a great opportunity to build on what I’d already started learning in the STEM program and take it to the next level.”