Park Ridge students’ favorite part of school day? Launch time!
Washington School's "Beaker 1" travels above the Earth on May 30. | Contributed photo
Updated: July 15, 2012 6:15AM
Attached to a weather balloon that soared up into space and later nearly lost at sea — or, lake, to be precise — Sara Born’s third-grade science mascot, Beaker, took quite the journey last month.
To infinity, Lake Michigan and beyond, as the launch’s motto went.
As the children cheered, the stuffed Muppet, dressed in his scientist’s lab coat, arms flapping in the wind, was sent off into the sky May 30 as part of a science experiment for about 100 third-graders at Washington School in Park Ridge.
Tied to a 10-foot-wide, helium-filled weather balloon carrying a box of video equipment, photographs of the students and a GPS device to track its movement, Beaker I, as it was known, would make it 92,000 feet above Will County’s Whalon Lake Nature Reserve before plummeting back to Earth — and disappearing.
For a time Born’s students weren’t sure their beloved Muppet would be recovered.
“All the kids were hoping, but wondering if we’d have to hold a memorial service for Beaker because he was lost,” Born said.
Made possible through a collaboration between Born, Washington School parent David Lawrence and Jamey Erickson, a friend of Lawrence’s and a space-exploration enthusiast who donated the equipment for the launch, the plan was for the parachute carrying Beaker, the video equipment and GPS to land in a field in Northwest Indiana where it would later be recovered by tracking the GPS signal. The lesson would provide students with photographs and video of the Earth while teaching them concepts like gravity, atmosphere, distance and, according to Born, the perseverance that science requires.
But high wind speeds and the weather balloon popping at a lower altitude than expected sent the parachute off course and into Lake Michigan, 7 miles off the shore of Michigan City, Ind.
After hitting the lake the GPS the class was tracking suddenly stopped transmitting. Lawrence and Erickson headed out to the Indiana Dunes area where several boat owners were keeping their eyes open for the bright orange box, as well, expecting it to wash up on shore by morning.
“We thought we would spend time there walking up and down the beach looking for the thing,” Lawrence said.
The following day the GPS started to transmit its location again — Beaker and the payload were now 4 miles off the shore. Lawrence and Erickson drove to Portage, Ind., where they climbed aboard a charter boat and, braving very choppy water, set out on their search. By now the GPS had for the second time stopped transmitting a signal.
“I don’t do a lot of lake fishing so I’m not used to what passes for normal on the lake, but it seemed to be abnormally large waves,” Lawrence said.
After finding the spot where the last GPS transmission had occurred, the boat turned southwest. Suddenly, after traveling for about a mile, Lawrence caught sight of the orange box.
“We pulled the box on board and there it was — back in our hands, all in one piece,” he said.
That included Beaker.
“We were so happy to be able to find it for those kids,” said Lawrence, whose daughter is in Born’s class. “It seems impossible, in a way, that in Lake Michigan we’d find this little, 12-inch box just bobbing along in the lake.”
Once the memory cards on the cameras were dried out, photographs and video of the journey were retrieved and shared with the Washington School students.
Video shows Beaker silently rising above fluffy, white clouds, the darkness of space above and around him, the blue Earth below. His face is lit by the sun as he travels in a circular pattern above the Earth.
For Born’s class Lawrence and Erickson were “superheroes” for recovering the payload — and, of course, Beaker, who now has his own bed to sleep in inside Born’s classroom.
The launch, Born said, “had the best-possible outcome for a risky scenario. We didn’t know what would happen. It could have popped 20 feet up.”
Born hopes to conduct the experiment again, but first she’ll need funding to purchase new equipment.
“My plan is hopefully to see if I can work with the (District 64) Elementary Learning Foundation to do this in the future,” she said.
In addition to providing an educational experience the space launch proved to be an enjoyable activity for everyone involved, Born said.
“It brought a lot of excitement to the end of the school year,” she remarked.