A SHABy Flight and a Soaring Success

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I remember waiting with bated breath two years ago as my friends and I waited for the go-ahead to one of the craziest times of my life. In the summer of 2018, I was in the Space Life Sciences Training Program (SLSTP) as a Research Associate with the NASA Ames Research Center. The twelve members of the program had to design a scientific research project and put together a comprehensive funding proposal. Given that the program was only eight weeks and included personal projects, SLSTP didn’t actually execute a project. Well…our group was a bunch of loons who decided we should actually carry out a full research project in less than two months.

Note: All figures in this article come from this paper and carry the CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.

We proposed flying high-altitude weather balloons over California during fire season to collect “black carbon” (soot, smoke, etc.) data and capture microbes at certain altitudes. The goal was to see if any microbes were more—or less—abundant over smoke plumes. Black carbon changes air temperature and may adsorb certain nutrients that microbes could access. We’d also be able to detect how high the fires spat black carbon.

SLSTP High-Altitude Balloon (SHAB) Design

Funding was tricky. Grants take months to process, and we had four or five weeks to complete everything. We were going to create a Kickstarter to rapidly fund the project but weren’t sure if NASA’s regulations allowed us to do so. We sought the advice of our director. Instead of a simple yes or no, the director asked:

“How much do you need?”

“We planned on setting the Kickstarter at $1,000.”

“Really!? I was expecting much larger numbers. We have $X in a discretionary fund, I want a full proposal on my desk next Monday.”

Our hearts jumped: NASA wanted to fund our project directly!

The next 48 hours were spent finalizing the details of our project, crafting a budget, adding appendices, etc. After turning in the proposal, we waited for an entire nail-biting week for a response. From a proposal standpoint, that’s unheard of, but boy were we stressed. In the meantime, we made sure that we were ready to hit the ground running the moment the gates opened. If we got approved, we’d have less than four weeks to execute the entire project. Not only did we get approved, but we were awarded $3,000 (we actually got a more than that, but for reasons mentioned later, we had to skip certain analyses and thus spent far less than our funded amount)!

And thus began one of the most hellaciously rewarding weeks of my life. In just a week or so, we: 1) finished the 3D models of our sampling platform; 2) laser-cut and assembled the sampling platforms; 3) built a radar reflector (to make the balloon appear much larger on radar); 4) set up a radio transponder so we could track its location live; 5) assembled filters; 6) constructed the robotic units for data logging and controlling the sampling platform; 7) programmed everything. We named the system the SLSTP High-Altitude Balloon (SHAB). My job was to program the data logging and microbial sampling system. I did not know the programming language C++, the language needed to run Arduinos. So, I spent that week learning enough C++ to get the device working, document the code, and ensure its construction was intuitive. Many of us worked for 80+ hours that week, yet we were still not ready to fly the day before our scheduled launch. Four of us stayed up that final night working on our payload. At one point, we all broke down and cried. Problem after problem assailed us. But then we gathered our spirits, tried out a few new things, applied some literal grease, taped a battery in place, and gave it one last test. Like a scene from a thriller, it worked!

SHAB Arduino, Breadboard, and Actuators

We ran out to the car with less than two hours to spare, got to the launch site north of Oakland, assembled everything, and it flew! It actually worked! Everyone was in disbelief and ecstasy. Watching our payload tumble into the sky released so much anxiety and stress—replacing them with accomplishment and peace.

Comically, in hindsight, the balloon got caught in a 100+ MPH wind in the upper atmosphere and landed near the Nevada border… That resulted in two separate expeditions to recover the payload. It was well over 100 ft high in a tree, and we tried everything within our power. We must have looked like idiots in the middle of the forest on a steep hill hitting tennis balls, slinging fishing line, and firing slingshots at the top of a tree. The tennis ball method almost worked, actually, thanks to a highly talented member of the team. Ultimately, both groups were unsuccessful, and we contacted the US Forest Service, who sent rangers to recover the payload for us. Not a week later, we launched our second SHAB and recovered it same day.

SHAB Biological Sampling Devices
A) Payload; B) Microbial sampling device; C) 3D model of B before adding filter paper

Sadly, the biological data from both flights was of minimal use due to how long it took to recover the first SHAB; the second SHAB lost its biological samples on the descent. However, all of our black carbon, temperature, and humidity data were usable. More importantly, we demonstrated that we could launch a scientifically valuable mission on the cheap in just a few weeks with hard work and strong support. We published a paper late last year in the journal of Gravitational and Space Research titled A High-Altitude Balloon Platform for Space Life Sciences Education. This paper outlines how to create and operate a low-cost high-altitude balloon for educational or research purposes.

Five dirty, bloody, tear-laden weeks of success and empowerment. I had never felt more accomplished then when that first balloon took off. We put in our all and saw the fruits of our labors. To the second year anniversary of this SHABy flight!

But Alex, Isn’t This a Blog About OCD

Yes! OCD and ADHD contributed substantially to this project and story. When ADHD loves a project, it causes an immense and unyielding drive to complete said project. This phenomenon is called perseveration and I have another story about it here. This project was highly technical and involved many moving pieces—my ability to keep everything in memory and work through the project was a result of my ADHD. OCD perfectionism can be an overwhelming and an extremely stressful symptom. However, it can also be a great boon. OCD helped me dive into C++ rapidly and quickly work out not only how to write the code but also how to style it. The other programmer on the project, who had previous C++ experience, complimented my code’s readability (how easy it is for a human to read what I wrote). Given that this code is now part of an education publication, readability is sacrosanct. Thank you, ADHD and OCD, for enabling me to succeed in SLSTP.

Have a great day and always practice self-compassion!

A Fantastic Friend of Mine

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