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In the solar eclipse's shadow, hundreds of students will launch balloons for NASA

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The nation is just two weeks away from a total solar eclipse. The day it happens, across the country, undergraduate students will release hundreds of research balloons. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has more on the effort to study the eclipse from the sky.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: It's a chilly March morning in Cumberland, Md. We're in a parking lot at a local community college with Mary Bowden, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland.

MARY BOWDEN: Getting ready to start inflation on two balloons simultaneously.

BRUMFIEL: Deflated, these balloons look like the biggest party balloons you've ever seen. On April 8, they'll carry long strings of scientific instruments into the path of the total solar eclipse. A big goal is to study the atmosphere. As the eclipse shadow travels from south to north across the U.S., it briefly cools the air. Bowden says it's like dragging a swizzle stick through a cup of hot coffee.

BOWDEN: The eclipse itself is kind of stirring up the atmosphere as it traverses across the country, and so what we're looking for is this sort of signature or the effect of that movement of this shadow.

BRUMFIEL: It's a great opportunity to learn a little more about how the atmosphere actually works. Today is the last chance to check all the equipment.

BOWDEN: And this is our final dress rehearsal, final test.

BRUMFIEL: Now, the thing about these balloons is that they're flown by undergraduate students.

DANIEL GRAMMER: It's just a club. Everybody here just volunteers to do it 'cause they like to do it.

BRUMFIEL: Daniel Grammer is a junior at the University of Maryland. He'll lead the launch on eclipse day. He says the team hopes to have spectacular views.

GRAMMER: Hopefully we'll have livestream video from the balloon in flight. And you'll be able to see the shadow as the moon moves over the sun, and you'll see the shadow pan across the Earth. And it'll be super-cool to look at.

BRUMFIEL: These balloons travel at 75 to 80,000 feet in altitude. That's twice as high as a commercial airplane flies.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALLOON INFLATING)

BRUMFIEL: The team gets to work filling their balloons with helium gas.

SAIMAH SIDDIQUI: Where are we at?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We are at 400.

SIDDIQUI: OK, so we're about three-quarters of the way full.

BRUMFIEL: Saima Siddiqui is in charge of inflating one of the balloons today. She's carefully watching as it fills.

Are you nervous at all?

SIDDIQUI: No. I've done this so many times. This is probably, like, my 30th launch or something. So it's up there. Yeah.

Tell me when you're off.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

BRUMFIEL: Siddiqui begins to test the balloon to make sure it's got enough lifting power. But then suddenly, the balloon breaks loose and floats skyward.

SIDDIQUI: Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, no.

BRUMFIEL: Siddiqui and the rest of the team get their heads together to figure out what happened. It turns out they forgot to reset a device that cuts the string. It allows the balloon to float away and the scientific equipment to parachute back to the ground, where it can be recovered. But it's supposed to cut at the very end of the flight, not the beginning.

SIDDIQUI: It accidentally cut, and our balloon went. So now we're going to wait for them to make sure it won't cut again.

BRUMFIEL: I asked you before if you were feeling nervous. Are you feeling nervous now?

SIDDIQUI: No. I think we handled it well.

BRUMFIEL: Everyone remains calm. Meredith Embrey is responsible for tying the scientific payload to the balloon, which fortunately hadn't happened yet.

MEREDITH EMBREY: Good thing is we didn't lose the payload itself. And we always bring two spare balloons and double the amount of helium we need. So we will start inflating and do another balloon. Yeah, I've never seen that happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL SCRAPING)

BRUMFIEL: The students get to work hooking up the spare helium. They've got to be quick because the wind is picking up. Siddiqui seems to love it, using engineering to solve problems on the fly under pressure. She hopes to someday have a career launching rockets.

SIDDIQUI: Maybe like a flight controller, flight operator type person for my full-time job.

BRUMFIEL: For what - like, NASA or SpaceX?

SIDDIQUI: If I can make it to NASA, for sure. Yeah.

BRUMFIEL: In fact, NASA is backing this ballooning team and dozens of others that will launch during the eclipse. The goal is to train a new generation with the skills they'll need to someday launch everything from satellites to astronauts. Balloons are a perfect first step, says Bowden.

BOWDEN: It's a microcosm of a NASA launch but cheap and fast, and you can do it again if you fail.

BRUMFIEL: You could launch accidentally.

BOWDEN: Oh, that, too.

BRUMFIEL: The second balloon is inflated, but the winds are picking up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We're getting there. We're getting there. It's red.

BRUMFIEL: The crew rushes to get the payloads ready until finally...

SIDDIQUI: OK, everyone stay clear if you're not doing anything. We are good for release.

BRUMFIEL: Flight director Kruti Bhingradiya gives the go-ahead.

KRUTI BHINGRADIYA: All right - ready for countdown.

SIDDIQUI: Three.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Two. One. Release.

(APPLAUSE)

BRUMFIEL: One by one, the balloons drift off into the clouds. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOLA YOUNG SONG, "CONCEITED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.