John and Barbara Hiltner were watching TV at their home in Boliver, Ohio, when the phone rang with an unexpected call from a group of Purdue students.
“I could hear background noise that must have been his buddies on the project with him, and my husband hears what’s going on and goes, ‘Oh, that’s a hoax,’” Barbara said.
Brent Justice, a senior in the College of Engineering, was one of the many anxious Purdue students on the other line.
“I don’t blame them because we were like, ‘Yeah, um, could you open up your back door and go into your backyard?’” he said.
Justice and his team, the Association for Mechanical and Electrical Technologists, were searching for the altitude balloon they released on Saturday around noon. The team sent up the balloon to gather information regarding different variables such as altitude, pressure and radiation. GPS trackers attached to the balloon showed the exact location of the balloon upon impact, and calls were soon placed by the members.
Many team members called neighbors trying to explain what they were looking for. Most thought it was a prank call coming at nine in the evening, and the cold, snowy weather didn’t exactly entice travel outdoors to find the missing equipment. Everyone hung up on the team until they called the Hiltners.
Barbara said she was hesitant at first, but the team’s technical knowledge convinced her they were telling the truth.
“I didn’t think anyone could concoct a story like this describing all these landmarks in the backyard,” she said.
From there, John Hiltner climbed up into a tree where the balloon had been snagged and cut it loose. Monday, the balloon was packaged and shipped back to campus.
According to Justice, a flight this long is not irregular; however, it was the organization’s longest recorded flight to date. Originally, the balloon was supposed to land in Marion, Ind., but the balloon exceeded the trip by nearly nine hours. What was supposed to be a routine flight showing new members how altitude balloons operate turned into a humorous search and recovery mission.
For the first time in Justice’s memory, the lost materials were mailed back to the team, saving them from a 13-hour trip to return the balloon back to campus. The package was sealed inside a cardboard Macy’s box and was opened shortly before 9 a.m. Thursday.
The organization’s work has caught even the attention of the Pentagon, with potential grant money issued to continue the research.
“It’s difficult and expensive for a company to do ... research and development,” Justice explained. “Whereas for students, it’s much cheaper for us because we kind of do it in our own free time and we are used to a budget, so for (the Pentagon) to let us do this research and development for them is a win-win in both situations.”
Next for the organization is the Global Space Balloon Challenge on April 18 to 21, an international competition in which several hundred competitors participate; the goal for Purdue’s team is to launch a rocket from the altitude balloon and is anticipating a landing in Europe.
Justice said they don’t have designs yet, but he is always brainstorming.