Student’s balloon had 2 cameras, 1 goal: space

Eric Thomas, 20, launched a weather balloon that achieved an altitude of 26 miles, July 10, 2013 (KOIN 6 News/Matt Bell)
Eric Thomas, 20, launched a weather balloon that achieved an altitude of 26 miles, July 10, 2013 (KOIN 6 News/Matt Bell)

BEAVERTON, Ore. (KOIN) — Eric Thomas had two tiny cameras and a lofty goal. He was “trying to get as high as possible.”

To outer space, that is.

Thomas, a 20-year-old student from Beaverton, and about a dozen other students from Centralia College launched a weather balloon in eastern Washington on July 6 loaded with weather instruments, a GPS and two cameras to document the 17-mile journey up from Earth.

After months of planning and preparation — including getting clearance from the FAA — all Thomas and his friends could do was wait after they launched the balloon.

“You fill up your balloon and launch it so it’s probably more scary than any project I’ve done because you don’t know if you’ll get it back or not,” he told KOIN 6 News.

The balloon left from a field dotted with sage brush. Then crop circles became visible on the cameras, then the Columbia River and eventually everything within about 120 miles.

“You get this picture of it almost looking like it’s in orbit where Earth is above and space continues onward,” he said. “It was pretty amazing seeing the curve of the Earth and knowing those pictures were from us and not from NASA.”

7-10-13-balloon teammate Blake Wiley
Eric Thomas’ weather balloon teammate, Blake Wiley, talks to KOIN 6 News. (KOIN 6)

The balloon burst around 90,000 feet and a parachute brought the cameras back to Earth. Thomas and his team retrieved the cameras using GPS.

“It was pretty amazing looking at [the pictures] for the first time. We were hoping one of the cameras didn’t malfunction,” he said. “Trying to use the word ‘awesome’ and a couple levels up to try and describe how great this was.”

When Eric Thomas was 3, his mother said he wanted to design an asteroid shield to protect the Earth. Now he’s still looking to the skies.

“You’re looking down at pictures, it seems like the problems we have here aren’t that big of a deal,” said teammate Blake Wiley. “Kind of gives you perspective of the whole world.”

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