Sunday, April 3
notes for the next time you launch a high-altitude balloon
So we launched, tracked, and recovered
this balloon yesterday. It was kind of haphazard, but we got the payload back
and we learned a few things. The most obvious thing, of course, is that
projects like this are going to work a lot better if you do your preparatory
work weeks in advance instead of the night before while drinking beers.
We'll take that as read; here are some notes about the rest of it.
1. A notebook is a good idea. You can run through a pre-launch checklist,
keep a log, jot down coordinates and times, all that sort of thing. It's
guaranteed not to lose power, and it's a good record after the fact.
Of course, if you've brought a notebook, you should remember where it is so
you can actually use it for the duration. I screwed up on this one.
There's a more general point here: It really helps to know where your tools
and supplies are. As with the things in your wallet or the tools in a workshop,
you'll be vastly more effective if you can go right to a designated location
when you need something. If it's not on your person, put it back where it's
supposed to live. If it's supposed to be on your person, keep it on your
person. Whatever it is, don't just set it down or toss it onto a car seat.
(Digression: Like the tech industry dork that I am, I own a couple of
varieties of Leatherman Tool. The little one on my keychain that unfolds into a
pair of scissors is way useful, and there's a good argument from utility for
having the multitool stashed in a bag, but yesterday reinforced a nagging
thought I've been having for a while: The item you want in your pocket when
stuff is happening isn't some 27-function monstrosity that caters to your inner
6-year-old's Transformers nostalgia; it's just a knife. A
reasonably sized, locking folder with a sharp blade you can open
Mid-setup, I had to run and borrow a crescent wrench from a guy at
a nearby auto shop. He didn't have to think about where the wrench was. He just
opened the right drawer and took it out without even looking. That guy is good
at his job. Which brings me to...
2. If you're connecting something to a tank of helium, there's a pretty
good chance "hand tight" isn't good enough. Bring a wrench. More generally, that
impulse you have to throw a toolbox in with everything else? It's a good
impulse. Listen to it.
3. The wind will play merry hell with your best intentions. As with most
outdoor undertakings (cf. frisbee, bicycling, roofing, things involving tents),
the wind will make you hate your life. I keep hearing that people who do this
regularly are obsessive about the weather and launch from places where they can
be shielded from the wind while filling the balloon. Now I know why.
3a. A Bic won't work for shit in the wind. Everybody who's ever tried to
smoke anything or start a fire with a breeze going can probably appreciate this.
It's also a problem if you're trying to melt an end of nylon cord to keep it
from unraveling. Next time I'm going to bring a "windproof" lighter, if I can
find one that actually works.
4. An adult should know how to tie a variety of knots. I don't. It's kind
of crippling. I should get a book or something.
5. Multitasking causes pain. We filled the balloon in parallel with the
final steps of prepping the payload, laying out line, etc. Doing these things
one-after-the-other would have saved us a lot of hassle.
6. Power and network are key during the tracking phase. We did way better on
this front than the
first time around. I brought a spare phone battery I didn't wind up needing,
and we had two new-ish laptops with decent battery life. We didn't go out of
cell service much, Dave was able to tether with his iPhone, and we had a
paper map for fallback navigation.
All that said, we still wound up fighting with a crappy inverter plugged into
Dave's 4Runner's inadequate electrical system via cigarette lighter, and missing
a battery for the tracking radio. Next time around I want to build a serious
power station, preferably one that'll work independent of the vehicle's
electrical and charge from a solar panel mounted on the roof. I also want a bunch
of map data stored on the main computer.
7. There's software for this stuff. We were using dl-fldigi to decode
tracking data from the payload. It worked pretty well, but if we'd put in more
time on it pre-launch, we probably could have had it plotting coordinates
directly to an offline, don't-need-no-network map.
8. Detailed paper maps are a good idea. We didn't strictly need it this
time around — but I was glad it was there, and I won't do this again
without one in the car.
9. Navigating from a cellphone-sized display sucks. And all of the
software both of us had on our expensive, overfeatured smartphones was totally
useless when it came to the simple task of taking a lat/long and pointing us in
the right direction. It was a good reminder that the tools you use to stumble
your way home post-party or find a restaurant in town are built on assumptions
that just won't hold out in the field.
10. One more person would make a world of difference. Two people are
easily enough to launch and track a balloon, but an ideal setup would have had
us with one to drive, one to run the radio tracking setup, and one to
11. Food and water. Last time, we did the whole day on a candy bar and a
pack of jerky. This time I went to the grocery store. Always go to the grocery
12. I should never forget the stuff I learned about the outdoors when I was
8. We wound up striking off on foot across some dude's pasture to find the
payload. I forgot water and a hat. No big deal this time around, but it was
We did take the time to knock on the nearby farmhouse door, since there was
a nearby place, and although nobody answered, I'm pretty sure it's usually
the right idea. Country people aren't generally gonna begrudge you crossing their
fences, but they'll probably appreciate if you stop by to ask and they tend to
know useful stuff about the landscape.
13. Finally, those pants that unzip above the knee to become shorts? They are a