It’s 8:58am. Shu still hasn’t called. To heck with it, I’ll call him. Let’s get this thing off the ground.
Normally I wouldn’t be angry about a late phone call, but I was still in bed, half asleep, which invokes a certain crankiness.
I call Shumit DasGupta (aka Shu, or in some cases, Clarence Bean), my former science teacher turned co-worker at Techsplosion. He’s the driving force behind this project.
“I just called the party supply store. They have plenty of helium.”
This is it. This is launch day. Shu asks:
“So, should we do it? …**** it. Let’s do it.”
Can’t say no to that.
30 minutes later, I’m pulling in to Shu’s driveway. Ten minutes after that, I’m parking illegally and waiting for him to grab us bagels.
Next up is the party supply store to grab the helium that will propel our balloon to the upper atmosphere. I opt to rent a tank that will nearly fill 2 balloons, in case we have a malfunction.
After ten minutes of figuring out how to fit a helium tank and dolly into the trunk of a ’96 Honda Civic, we’re off to Dublin for launch.
11:00am We’re in Dublin. Roughly 45 minutes from SF.
Shu used to work in the area. We find a Peet’s adjacent to a park, and do our final GPS test. SPOT is transmitting fine, and so we head to the park.
Now everything is becoming real. The heavy helium tank is with us in the middle of the field, along with all of our other equipment. I’m getting a little jumpy at this point, and Shu is as well.
Once everything is in place, I begin to fill the balloon.
I’m anxious to stop filling it and launch the thing, but patience and Shu’s estimation of the balloon’s diameter (which we hoped would be 5ft at launch) prevail.
We’ve tied off the balloon. Shu holds it while I make the final preparations- starting the camera, then taping everything shut.
Everything is attached now, we’re ready for launch.
Shu lets the balloon go.
12:00pm After watching the balloon, aptly named VGER-1, float off and nearly out of our field of vision, we beam back up to Peet’s to check in on it.
About 30 minutes later, we get our first GPS update that clearly shows the balloon is moving.
We take a moment to show off- we’ve got a while before anything happens, and so the facebook posts and tweets begin to flow.
Almost two hours after launch, we begin to get nervous. All of our predicted flight paths show the balloon taking a sharp turn West around Oakley. Our balloon is still heading North East.
And so we head to Pleasant Hill. At this point, it’s a good place to stop, since it gives us the option to head West towards Vacaville, or East towards, well, trees.
1:50pm In Pleasant Hill, we get good, but mildly stressful news. Meredith is joining our ranks. Will we have anything to show her?
The balloon stops transmitting its coordinates near Elk Grove, and just before Meredith arrives. As Meredith is reaching our exit, we call to let her know it’s time to head to Fairfield.
We opt to head further north to Fairfield, within 10 miles of the original estimated landing point. Meredith ends up beating us there. We set up shop at a Starbucks inside Barnes & Noble.
Things are looking grim. With the latest update over an hour ago, our balloon should’ve long since ruptured, starting its descent and bringing it back into GPS range. And so we do what anyone would do in that situation. Panda Express.
4:10pm After eating at Panda, we head back to Starbucks.
Laptop batteries are as low as our hopes at this point, since we still aren’t getting a signal, and the Starbucks has no power outlets.
Shu boots his computer, prepared for the worst.
He loads the SPOT website, and the unthinkable happens. New GPS coordinates have shown up- VGER-1 lives!
But all is not well.
It’s heading for Lake Tahoe. Trees, mountains, and tree-covered mountains. For those who don’t know, here’s what the terrain is like around there:
Its most recent update shows the VGER-1 descending above a mountain that looks unreachable. There are back roads nearby, but they’re probably undriveable. Even if we could reach them, it would mean several miles of hiking a steep incline packed with trees, with no point of reference but dead reckoning with Shu’s spotty iPhone GPS. We can’t use SPOT without a laptop, and Shu’s phone isn’t configured for tethering.
4:20pm Another GPS update. Things are looking up.
Our balloon has finally wised up, and is now heading back towards I-80. With no way to tell its altitude or speed, though, it could still have miles to fall.
We anxiously wait for the next update. Laptop batteries are getting dangerously low, so I turn mine off to use as backup when Shu’s dies.
4:30 comes, and it looks like our balloon may have landed! We can’t be sure until the next update, but we think it landed shortly after the last update, since it has traveled a minuscule distance from the last coordinates when compared to previous ones.
We wait for three coordinate updates, to make absolutely certain that it’s touched down. At 4:50, we get our confirmation. Not only has it touched down, it appears to be in a tree right near a back road that looks accessible off of I-80!
Now we have a difficult decision to make. We have exactly 3 hours and 20 minutes of sunlight left, according to the internet.
Our nerves are shot. We’re hot, tired, and just want our dang VGER-1 back. But we’re two hours drive from Colfax, where the balloon landed.
That’s not factoring in rush hour traffic through Vacaville and Sacramento.
And if it’s in a pine tree, I’m going to be tasked with climbing it. I may be part monkey, but climbing 100 feet up a tree with no safety equipment is no short order.
We know we’re going to be up all night wondering “what if” if we call it quits now.
The Trials of Adventure
5:05pm We’re out the door and on the road. 3 hours, 5 minutes to sunset.
We’re zooming up I-80 in the carpool lane, blasting our hardcore, gangsta- ….Public Radio. NPR’s Radiolab is the show of choice, a suggestion by Shu, and one of the few forms of audio entertainment that we could all agree on.
I announce that we should be on the lookout for a Home Depot, so I can at least get some nylon rope to aid my climbing, should it come to that.
It’s hot in my black Civic, and my AC is out of freon. We alternate opening the windows for fresh air, and closing them to better hear Radio Lab, the fan running full blast all the while.
Beads of sweat are forming. I take off my hat to help cool off, and immediately regret it as my hair starts blowing all over the place with a window down and nothing to hold it.
Meredith is sitting in the back seat, resting her arm on the helium tank that peeks out of the other, folded down, passenger seat. I’m getting thirsty, and I know I have some water bottles in the trunk, directly behind her.
She manages to grab a couple bottles. Shu and I practically swallow them whole.
As we continue up I-80, we have another stroke of good luck- a home depot is visible from the road!
We lose about 15 minutes while I run in to buy 100ft of rope. I still have no harness, and my only other equipment is whatever we can improvise from the materials left over after launch.
After far too many renditions of “Are we there yet?” we reach Magra road, which will take us to our destination. Now the excitement is building. Our stomachs tighten.
We turn of Magra onto Golden Arrow Ranch Road- the last marked road of our trip. And this is where things get messy.
We aren’t quite sure of our exact location anymore, but we head up a dirt road that gets progressively undriveable. We come to a large bump at the top of a hill, and decide that we’ll have to walk any further.
As Shu and Meredith exit the car, we change plans. They’ll start walking, while I see if I can get over the bump.
I get stuck on the bump. Of course I do. I try very slowly reversing and very slowly moving forwards, but the bump is wide enough that my front wheels are barely touching the ground, and my rear wheels (not that they matter) are in the air.
Now I’m really anxious. The sun is starting to set, and my car is stuck in the middle of nowhere, with little to no cell reception. We still haven’t found VGER-1.
Meredith meets me as I abandon the car, and decides to go get help from a house we passed on the way. I give her my keys, and ask her to get me a water bottle when she’s heading back up.
Shu and I head off to look for our craft.
End of the Line
Shu and I explore the hill. We have no idea who’s property we’re on, or where to look, except that it was near a road.
Shu pulls out his laptop, and puts it on some twigs and dirt in a clearing we discovered. I had taken two screenshots of the location of VGER-1 before we left, so we could use them as reference when we got here:
We’re having a real tough time getting our bearings here- there are trees, clearings, dirt roads, gravel roads, and even several things that resembled the grey blob in the bottom right of the second photo.
I’m starting to worry- my throat is dry, and though I’m hot, I’m not sweating as much as I should be, which is a sign of dehydration. I keep this information to myself, so I don’t discourage Shu.
We’re walking through progressively nasty terrain. And then, we see it!
At the top of a pine tree, right next to a concrete road, Shu spots something white. It’s too far away to tell what it is just yet, but we rush down to the road to get a better look.
As if a mirage, the white thing disappeared when we got to the road. We spent the better part of 30 minutes looking for it, eventually returning to our original position.
We caught sight of it again, and gave it more consideration. If it was the VGER-1, why was it only one white blob, instead of a white blob of parachute with a Styrofoam cooler hanging from it? We knew it hadn’t detached itself- it simply didn’t have the mass to break the paracord and carabiner that held it to the chute.
After more speculation, we decide it isn’t our craft. Now we hear Meredith yelling for us.
We can’t hear her clearly, but it sounds like she’s anxiously telling us to come down. I start freaking out- is she ok? Is my car ok? What the hell is going on?
Moments later, she appears at the edge of our current clearing. She’s ok. My palms are still sweating.
She tells me I need to go down and move my car. She found the guy who’s property we were trespassing on, and although he certainly wasn’t happy we’d shown up and gotten ourselves stuck, he wasn’t angry either. She also tells me to apologize profusely to the man, which I of course do.
Despite probable dehydration, I leave Shu and Meredith to continue the search, while I jog downhill to my car. I’m really, really thirsty at this point. Starting to feel mildly lightheaded.
I reach the car and spot a hummer right behind it. Could he have been more prepared?
I apologize to the man (profusely, of course), and he understands. I grab a bottle of water and make its contents disappear, finally making me more comfortable.
I don’t know his name, but I think “Santa” would be appropriate. He looks the part, and has so far been exceedingly nice, given the circumstance.
While we attach our cars via tow cable, I explain to him what we’re looking for, and he tells me that it’s likely that the VGER-1 landed on his neighbor’s gated property, who’s out of town. We can still access the area by climbing down the hill, but I wont be able to drive there, despite the paved road.
Moments later, we’ve freed my car. I drive it to a more level position as Santa drives the hummer back to his house. I park, and start heading back up to meet Shu and Meredith.
To my surprise, I hear Meredith’s voice behind me, from near my car. Sure enough, she’s managed to find her way down another route, and back to our starting point. She tells me they found a gate, and Shu is walking down the road behind it. As we’re discussing next options, Shu shows up- he followed the private road back to the main road, which he then used to reach our starting point.
We don’t have a whole lot of time- the sun is barely visible on the horizon and light is starting to fade. I grab 2 more water bottles. Shu grabs our supply bag with the rope and a few other accessories like duct tape.
Meredith waits in the car while Shu and I head up another dirt road for one last attempt at finding our craft.
The hill gets steeper.
I ask Shu if he wants me to carry the bag, and he gratefully hands it to me. Just then, we hear the sound of a small engine. A few seconds later, we look behind us to see Santa and his son (roughly 4 years old) driving up our dirt path in what appeared to be some breed of golf cart.
We explain to him what we’re looking for, and he sits for a few seconds- I’m wondering if we should ask him for a ride, but it doesn’t feel right. Eventually, he asks if we’d like to hop in the back.
Now we’re cooking with gas. It’s clear that Santa’s very familiar with his property. He expertly navigates steep hills, bumps, and on several occasions, rather large branches sprawled right across the path. Shu attempts to get some bearing with his iPhone’s GPS, which is only occasionally catching signal now. We realize we’re in the wrong place- a few hundred feet south of where VGER-1 was located.
We tell Santa we’re looking for any kind of grey road- be it gravel, pavement, or dust. He says there are many around, a lot of which are outside his property. He offers to take us on a shortcut back to my car, and so back we head.
We’ve driven over 150 miles and tracked our balloon over the course of 8 hours. We’ve put countless hours and hundreds of dollars into the project, and it’s gone.
Santa turns onto a gravel road.
We come around a sharp bend in the road and spot VGER-1 ahead!!! We found it! Santa found it! 130 miles from our launch site, we recovered an object only just bigger than a Styrofoam beer cooler!
We’re ecstatic! We grab VGER-1 and hop back in the cart, which Santa drives back to my car. We’re careful to hold it out of sight till we have Meredith’s full attention, at which point Shu lifts it up with a triumphant grin on his face. We burst out laughing.
A day of excitement, uncertainty, stress, and adventure. And we found it!
VGER-1 was recovered in perfect condition (aside from, of course, the popped weather balloon).
We offered to show Santa and his son how everything worked, which they seemed interested in.
I grabbed extra AA batteries from my trunk while Shu undid the duct tape. He pulled out the camera and tried turning it on- it worked! We later determined that after landing, it had run out of space on the memory card to store photos, which caused the time lapse to stop running, and after a few minutes it automatically turned off to save power.
We determined that we had actually underfilled the balloon. Its flight should have been roughly 2 hours, but instead was roughly 4.5 hours. Had it been a shorter flight, it would have landed near Elk Grove- much closer and more easily accessible.
I want to show you guys two pictures. The first is a picture VGER-1 took from roughly 90,000 feet. The second is a picture the VGER-1 took just as it was reaching the tree tops. I want to remind you that this was an unguided, parachuting beer cooler, that was falling from roughly 90,000 feet into a landing zone of probably 95% trees, 5% roads & clearings. This is where VGER-1 was coming from:
And this, among hundreds of miles of forest, is the road where it came in for a landing:
Now how lucky is that?
Here are some photos:
The launch of VGER-1 was a proof of concept for a hands-on science camp run by Techsplosion in the Bay Area, CA. If you’d like to learn more about our camps or participate in a balloon launch (one of 6 unique curricula currently offered), you can visit us at
or email me at: Greg [at] techsplosion [dot] org
Thanks for reading!