Science is fun at KPMS, but recent experimental balloon lost in flight


Rick Sorrels

Richard Miller’s eighth-grade Key Peninsula Middle School science class has done it again. 

For four years, the science class has launched a weather balloon into the wild blue with onboard telemetry, tracking, cameras and various measuring instrumentation. Each year, the instrumentation and planning have become more sophisticated. 

Launch occurred at 12:45 p.m. on June 16 from the KPMS field. The balloon ascended rapidly to an altitude of 25,000 feet by the time it passed over Gig Harbor. It continued easterly over Renton and SR-18, where it caught westerly winds in the jet stream at an altitude of 45,000 feet. (Commercial aircraft usually travel at 30,000 and 35,000 feet.) 

According to Miller, from Renton, the balloon traveled westerly over SeaTac, Burien and Highland College, where at 91,000 feet, the balloon burst in the rarefied air.  

The attached parachute should have caught enough air to open at about 80,000 feet, and continued eastward to a landing point near Tiger Mountain, Miller said. 

“The last telemetry data received was from 80,000 feet. The GPS coordinates are broadcast every two minutes, and it takes five to 10 minutes to fall to ground from altitude,” said Miller. “It is a mystery what happened. It is most likely that the remains of the balloon got tangled in the parachute preventing it from opening, but we should have still received two more telemetry broadcasts on the way down. 

“It could have landed anywhere between SeaTac and Tiger Mountain. The ground crew is still searching,” said Miller. “This is the first time we could not immediately recover our equipment (in four flights).” 

The weather balloon was an off-the-shelf item. The science class students designed and constructed everything else, including the computer, programming and instrument package, which measured oxygen, carbon dioxide, barometric pressure, humidity and altitude. Oudates and results –– including video –– of earlier flights are available online at 

Most amazing to most is that the projected flight path was analyzed before the flight and plotted on the school computer, which provided an overlay of the balloon’s realtime location based upon broadcast GPS coordinates. The actual flight path was almost an exact match of the calculated projected path.  

Bridge strength testing 

Each eighth-grade science student also designed and constructed a model bridge out of popsicle sticks and glue (no fasteners at all, only glue). The students had 100 small popsicle sticks and 25 tongue depressors to work with. 

The finished bridges were 16-inches long and were tested to failure with a hydraulic press to determine and measure the exact number of pounds each bridge would support. 

The best performing bridge weighed only 224 grams (a bit under half a pound) and supported 299 pounds. 

Key Peninsula Science Foundation 

Miller, along with Sky Bressette (the captain for the first balloon team), brother Aaron Bresette (who has a commercial business that creates computer apps), and parents Ed and Dana Bresette have formed a nonprofit foundation dedicated to science education on the Key Peninsula.  

The foundation helps with the funding for the KPMS balloon launch and bridge testing, with other projects in development. Donations are welcome. Their website is 

Eighth-grade science students Ella Cashman and Amiah Bilderback both commented that they found the balloon and bridge project interesting and involving. 

“We (the staff) are excited to have a school where students are able to participate in problem solving, where they can dream big,” Miller said. 

Eighth-grade science teacher Phyllis Isabel said, “The kids are so excited with having the experience and figuring everything out, the critical thinking involved and problem solving.” 

“It’s good to cap off the year with this type of activity. These STEM activities make things special for our KPMS students. We are fortunate to have such amazing teachers,” said Jerry Goebel, school principal.