As the skies darkened and the sun became a sliver, a group of scientists and students were hunched over keyboards trying to find their massive, missing weather balloon.
The group — current and former members of the Casper College robotics club and two University of Wyoming doctorate candidates — had launched the 8-foot wide balloon 20 minutes before the moon slowly slid in front of the sun. In its wake were five packages that would collect data as they floated into the stratosphere. One carried a camera, another bacteria sent from NASA.
“This was two years in the making,” explained Tyler Banning, a student at the college and the group’s de facto spokesman. He stood in a cavernous garage on the edge of Casper College’s campus, the building tucked away from the main street and the crowds that sprawled across the college’s lawns.
As the balloon was being prepped for liftoff, Banning laughed when asked how he was feeling, now that the project was almost done.
“I can’t feel anything,” he said. “So much work went into it.”
Just after 11 a.m., it was time for that work to float away. After a countdown, the group of a dozen or so students and scientists used a rope to hook the five payloads to the balloon — each about the size of a camera case — and let it loose. And off it flew, up and away.
They whooped. They high-fived. And then they rushed to a mesh green tent sitting in the shrinking sunlight.
Tucker Even, a Casper College grad who lives in Rapid City, South Dakota, but came down to help with the experiment, sat bent over a keyboard, monitoring the balloon’s electronic vitals. A computer next to him showed the feed from the camera attached to one of the packages dangling from the balloon, spinning like a top. The live stream was available worldwide via NASA.
In front of the tent, a satellite dish sat on a tripod with wires stretching from the base of the dish back to the monitors.
So far, so good. The sky was slowly getting darker, the sun was disappearing, and the balloon was floating out of view. It would rise into the stratosphere, 50,000 feet at least, and then pop. The five packages would float safely back to Earth under a parachute. And the crew on the ground could track it all.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we lost a weather balloon,” someone announced from the tent.
The Internet went out. The tracking dish had no idea where the latex balloon was — other than in the sky — and the live stream had frozen, and the dreaded spinning wheel of death, the universal harbinger of technological anxiety, had appeared on the screen.
As instructor Megan Graham and University of Wyoming doctorate candidate Katie Foster tried to sort out the problem, Banning was manually manipulating the dish, trying to find the balloon. He turned it one way and announced he had three bars of connectivity, then just one, now two, then back to one.
“’So, Tyler, what’d you do during the eclipse?’” he said cheerfully to no one in particular. “Oh, I was just the dish.”
Meanwhile, the skies were continuing to darken. The students ducked out from beneath the tent to peer through eclipse glasses. It was almost 11:42 a.m., and the sun was nearly hidden. There were mere minutes left until the big show.
Even, the Rapid City resident, stepped out from beneath the tent and smiled. He was wearing flipflops because he’d forgotten to pack socks.
“Not the way we wanted it to go, but that’s OK,” he said. He looked up at the sky and sighed in awe.
“It’s happening!” someone yelled.
People spilled from the tent. They rushed out from the garage. Eclipse glasses were donned as cheers went up from the hundreds of people scattered across Casper College’s campus. For a moment, the balloon could wait.
There were gasps. Some cursing that was closer to prayer than profanity.
“This is once-in-a-lifetime,” said Clarence Corson, a member of the robotics club. He looked half dazed, half saved. “I’m so glad I chose this school.”
And then it was over. The sun began to peer out again, and the balloon-chasers were back on the hunt.
And they found it. The livestream fired back up. The balloon was high, up above clouds bathed in the shadow of the eclipse. More gasps, smiles, laughs. It was beautiful.
Graham stepped out from beneath the tent, looking much the way Corson did.
“Just a — “ she started and stopped, smiling. “It’s just great to witness it live.”