Global Space Balloon- Engaging Kids in Something Big


by Mark Schreiber -

It may be snowing right now but that doesn’t mean that my kids are idle by any means…. We’ve only got 6 weeks left until we launch a balloon to space!  Yup, that’s right its Global Space Balloon Challenge time!  If you haven’t heard about this great project, or just want to know more then read on. 

Global Space Balloon Challenge is in its second year this year and has gained significant traction since last time this year.  I think part of the reason is that they have made it really easy to get started with an amazing set of resources on their main site.  There are also great prizes this year like, Best Photo, Best Experiment, Best Charity and on and on.

Here’s how it works:

You fill a weather balloon with helium, attach a payload, a radar reflector, a camera, a GPS tracker and then (after you get FAA clearance) you let it go.  The balloon travels to somewhere around 100,000 feet to near-space and then it pops.  A parachute deploys and your rig comes back down to the earth.  Once it is below 30,000 ft you can pick it back up on your GPS and chase it down.  Once you locate it you get to go over the data recorded during your flight and see what types of photos your camera(s) took.

Why we chose this project:

Ok, this project is just plain cool.  The kids have been so motivated while working on this project and have really leaned into their strengths to help make this project a success.  This is a big collaborative project and the students are learning to ask good questions and then figure them out.  Questions like: 

  • How do you track a space balloon?
  • What rules govern the launch and recovery?
  • How much do all of the items weigh for our payload?
  • How much can a balloon lift and how do you figure that out?
  • Where will it land based on the weather and how can we predict that?
  • How do we balance our payload?
  • What is the ascent rate and descent rate?
  • And on and on.

Here’s a typical conversation from my class lately:

Me: So can you get the GoPro to take pictures and record video?

Student: I don’t know.

Me: Well, figure it out then. (student goes off to find a tutorial online)


Me: How are we going to get the balloon to land in Pawnee National Grasslands?

Student2: I’ve been testing 3 different launch sites for the last week and have the weather report, barometric pressure, wind, temperature, all in a spreadsheet as well as gps coordinates of each launch and landing site.

Me: Way to go!


Me: Hey Payload group, have you finished the spaceship model/payload container?  Why don’t you try to make a Styrofoam model on the laser cutter with stacked slices or run it on the ShopBot?  What if you just did a skeleton of the craft and then covered it with something lighter.  


Me: We need to figure out the ascent and decent rate and I need a recommendation for how much helium to buy, how big of a parachute to purchase and what our max payload weight will be.  Once you have that can you get it to the launch and recovery group too so they can run their predictions with correct data?  Thanks!

Running a large project:

I love to have a large collaborative project and a personal project going on at the same time.  I find that it eliminates down time from lack of resources and helps students to put their effort into the right places at the right time.  I spend a good 2 weeks helping students get projects researched, tasks identified and then they enter them into a master Gantt Chart.  If you haven’t used a Gantt chart in classes before for project management I highly recommend it.  Basically it is a chart with time on 1 axis and tasks on the other.  I have my student put the group project and their personal projects on the same chart so that they can see what needs to be done when. Here is a sample of the “Mega Space-Balloon and More Gantt Chart”.  You’ll see that I add a red column down to show where a grade check is and on that day, everything to the left is of the red box is due.  I have found that Gantt charts help me not only manage the project but keep students accountable in a way that keeps the onus on them.  For redirection I just say, “How are you doing with your tasks?  You know we have a grade check at the end of next period.”  -This helps me not be the driving force of the project and helps them make good choices.

There’s still time to join:

If you want to launch your own rig just jump on the space balloon challenge website and with their tutorials I think you can pull it off.  If you go for simple you should be able to complete the project in 5 hours max, plus your time to read and order the parts.

Pics in Space! (That's our team name too)

Or, if you just want a picture of yourself in space, email us and we can hook you up.  That’s right, we are sending pictures to space!  We have rigged up a digital photo frame with a GoPro pointed at it that takes pictures every 5 seconds.  The slide show of pictures will be turned on, and the GoPro will capture the pictures (plus the awesome view behind the digital frame) as it travels up, up, up. 

What a picture of yourself in (near)Space?  Just email and we can get you all set up space :at: 

Here’s some extra resources that I’ve liked so far:

Good entry tutorial:

Good videos of launches

Maybe a way to log data

Equipment review site:

Spot GPS