Family ready to shoot for the stars with balloon launch

LAKE STEVENS — An aptitude for science runs deep in this family.

The Grays have three generations working together on a experiment set to culminate on Easter.

Jonas Gray, 11, is researching with his parents, Earl Gray and Robin McGee, his grandmother, Diane Gray, 81, and six others in Lake Stevens. They’re preparing a weather balloon they hope to send into space Sunday.

“This is the kind of thing that gets kids excited,” Earl Gray, 57, said. “It’s like a space launch, in a sense, but you only get one shot.”

The project is part of the Global Space Balloon Challenge. It’s an educational effort in which teams from around the world are preparing high-altitude balloons to launch between today and Monday. Gray plans to recover the balloon’s payload then share the data, video and photos collected.

“It’s cool because we’ll be sending it into the stratosphere and getting awesome footage,” said Jonas Gray, a fifth-grader at Glenwood Elementary.

For the challenge, he named the Lake Stevens team Minecraft in Space, after the popular video game. The group is filling an 8-foot diameter balloon with data-gathering gadgets to release into the jetstream from Ephrata. According to their calculations, the Eastern Washington landscape offers the best place to launch and retrieve their project.

They expect the helium-filled balloon to expand to about 40 feet across as the pressure drops before it pops some 23 miles above the earth. Team predictions indicate the wind will carry it about 160 miles east where it is projected to parachute down about three hours later near Othello.

“I suppose most 82-year-old women don’t go gallivanting across Eastern Washington chasing a balloon,” Diane Gray said. “I guess I’m not like most grandmas period.”

She turns 82 in August. In contrast to most women of her generation, she enlisted in the Navy in 1951 and worked as an aviation electronics technician during the Korean War. She met her late husband, Earl Gray Sr., before leaving the military to raise a family. They both went on to work as engineers at Boeing. Diane Gray also taught science and ran a goat farm. Her three children grew up sharing her interest in science.

“Sometimes, I thought they were going to blow the back of my house off with the chemistry set,” she said. “Science has always been a part of their lives and mine.”

Now, Earl Gray Jr. works as a control system engineer for Honeywell, making electronics and aerospace systems. His partner, Robin McGee, 44, is a technical project manager at Amazon. Their expertise has come in handy in determining what to put inside the team’s balloon.

“We’re packing a lot of electronics in there,” Earl Gray said. “We’ve put a lot of thought into it.”

He is planning to place his iPhone inside facing straight down. That way they’ll have video and GPS.

“We’ll get the satellite perspective,” Earl Gray said.

They’ll include another GPS tracker for backup. It relays a signal via satellite to the team’s laptop, stationed in their chase vehicle, a cargo van.

They’ll cover their satellite with orange duct tape for added strength.

“You’ve gotta have duct tape,” Earl Gray said.

They’re also packing a GoPro camera for panoramic shots. They hope to capture views of the curvature of the Earth, the border between the atmosphere and the black of space.

The balloon boasts other gadgets, such as a data logger to measure the temperature, which is expected to drop to 70 degrees below zero. The team is putting hand warmers inside to prevent the electronics from freezing up.

They’re including a device that flashes and makes noise so they can more easily locate it on the ground.

They’ll pack the equipment in a hollow sphere then fill it with foam. Earl Gray said he hasn’t seen any other teams using that shape, which he expects to add stability.

He estimates the team has put at least 80 hours into researching the project and preparing for take off. They want to post the video online.

“And just keep it for posterity,” Earl Gray said.

He hopes experiences like the balloon challenge will help guide Jonas toward following in the family’s scientific tradition.

“I know when I was a kid, stuff like this was kind of inspiring,” Earl Gray said. “That’s the goal.”

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; anile@heraldnet.com.

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