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Facing scrutiny like never before, New England’s amateur balloonists are feeling the pressure

Scientists and hobbyists hope cooler heads prevail after watching several balloons get shot out of the sky in recent weeks.

Seth Kendall and his son Max, 12, plan to release a bevy of science experiments via high-altitude balloon this summer. They and other amateur balloonists are worried about the fate of such projects, after a month of tension involving objects floating in the skies.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

In July, Seth Kendall and his 12-year-old son, Max, plan to fill a giant latex balloon with gas and then launch it into the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Once it leaves the ground it will reach a height of around 100,000 feet, where it will expand to more than 40 feet wide. Dangling underneath will be a payload of science experiments designed by students, a device that bounces radio signals for hundreds of miles, and a GoPro camera to capture footage of the curvature of the Earth.

From there, it will be smooth sailing — at least, that’s their hope.

A string of recent high-profile, balloon-related incidents, including the military shooting down a Chinese surveillance balloon and several other yet-to-be-identified flying objects, have fueled anxiety among amateur balloonists across the country. Here in New England, where hobbyists and scientists routinely launch balloons for scientific research or kicks — or often both — fears about the fate of their projects are reaching new heights.

“We’re really worried that the [Federal Aviation Administration] might change any regulations and make it impossible to launch this balloon,” said Max, a sixth-grader who cofounded the New England Weather Balloon Society with his dad, and is getting a crash course in both science and public policy. “That’s our main concern.”


That sense of worry is reverberating throughout the region’s amateur ballooning community.

Nonstop news coverage of the Chinese balloon in early February, which an American fighter jet shot down off the coast of South Carolina, was alarming enough. Then, a few weeks later, evidence emerged that a second object the military downed over Alaska, using a $439,000 missile, may have actually been a $12 balloon launched by a hobby club called the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade.

One wrong move, it seems, and a family-friendly science experiment could become a mid-air disaster.


Short of that, the groups fear that public interest over these mishaps, and worries about other unmanned aircraft recently spotted in the air and reported by pilots, might lead lawmakers to clamp down on balloon-based experiments.

Max Kendall, 12, and his dad, Seth, have launched weather balloons to conduct scientific experiments and capture footage on a GoPro. Seth Kendall
Seth Kendall

“I think it’s natural when you see F-22s shooting down hobbyist balloons to be a little concerned,” said Kendall, Max’s father. “Our hope is that this is a momentary thing and doesn’t turn into a long-term crackdown on research and education.”

Bob Phinney, founder of New England Sci-Tech, a Natick-based science, technology, engineering, and math education center for children that collaborates with the Kendalls’ group, said it would be disappointing if hasty, anti-ballooning decisions were made due to recent events.

Students at his organization, Phinney said, have launched high-altitude balloons to study weather patterns, measure carbon in the atmosphere, learn about how ham radio operates, or to see how they can use math to predict where balloons will travel and land.

Online, though, he’s seeing critics suggest that the skies should be kept clear of balloons for fear of causing a clash with military and commercial flights.

“You should see the Facebook comments,” Phinney said. “Everybody who’s in the ballooning community is nervous about sending balloons up. It’s not that we’re afraid that jets are going to fly over and shoot them down. We’re afraid we’re going to be targets of all the [people] out there that don’t know science and think they know better.”


For one, he said, the biodegradable latex balloons hobby groups use are so small, they pose virtually no threat to aircraft. They also use devices that release radio signals that help identify what they are.

Plus, balloonists say they make sure to alert the FAA before any flights and coordinate with air traffic controllers to avoid the possibility of collisions or confusion in the event that their balloons trigger radar systems.

“We don’t want to go to all the time and trouble of creating our equipment and launching a balloon just to have it get shot down,” said Don McCasland, program director for the Blue Hill Observatory Science Center, which has helped groups launch research balloons since the 1930s.

The observatory’s facilities have been used for a range of projects, from schools sending up party balloons with notecards attached to launches organized by a Boston University photography professor whose students used high-altitude balloons to take pictures of Earth from near-space.

The observatory also sends caravans of people to track flight paths and fetch balloons when they hit the ground.

Until now, the only geopolitical concern McCasland has had was making sure crews had passports in case a balloon drifted across the Canadian border.

“We never thought Canada would release their jets or anything like that,” he said.

The balloons released by the observatory and other groups aren’t the same as the one used by the hobby club in Illinois, which deployed a mylar pico balloon that circled the globe while carrying a small transmitter that tracked its location.


Instead, the balloons used by local researchers typically spend just a few hours in the air and fall within driving distance.

Still, because they’re cheap and easy to get off the ground, and because the prospect of sending a balloon around the world is so intriguing, interest in pico balloons is increasing.

They could make for a fascinating new way to get kids interested in STEM research, balloonists agreed. If, that is, using them is done safely — and if people don’t dismiss the educational benefits of balloon experiments because of a few tense weeks in the skies.

“It’s not just doing a joy ride with a balloon,” said Fred Kemmerer, president of a radio group in Nashua, N.H., that stages balloon launches and creates balloon-related curricula for classrooms. “Although, it is a lot of fun.”

Spencer Buell can be reached at spencer.buell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerBuell.