It was supposed to a fun project to encourage San Diego area students to get involved in science and the environment. Instead, it has turned into an intriguing adventure that may have uncovered illegal activity in a remote area of San Bernadino County.
On Friday, Bobby Russell, an admitted science buff, who once ditched a seventh grade journalism class so he could watch the first Space Shuttle launch, kicked off the inaugural project of his non-profit Quest For Stars organization.
The plan was to launch a weather balloon from Warner Springs. It went off without a hitch . Attached to the balloon was a payload that included a styrofoam box packed with still and video cameras and GPS units. The launch was so sophisticated, it required FAA clearance. The balloon would lift to 100,000 feet and then drop back down to earth attached to a parachute.
The pictures and data collected from the journey would then be passed on to science students at Westview High School in Rancho Penasquitos.
"We want to inspire students to reach for the stars and show them at a young age, they can actually perform some pretty cool stuff," said Russell, 42, a pilot and employee of General Atomics.
Careful weather calculations showed the payload, nicknamed "Droid One", would land within a 20-mile radius of Valley Center. But Russell knew he would be at the mercy of the elements.
"Mother Nature will call the shots and I feel there's a devine wind blowing for this. We'll see though," he said.
It turns out, Russell and his crew lost contact with "Droid One". It wasn't until hours later that a backup GPS system kicked in and showed the payload had drifted north of Palm Springs in Morengo Valley. Russell knew the exact coordinates of the landing site, but now the challenge was to get there.
"Droid One" landed in rugged, mountainous terrain, a 14-mile hike from the nearest parking area. Russell and his crew began their trek, but then ran into another problem. He characterized it as an "illegal operation."
"Let's just say the appropriate authorities have been alerted as to what's going on down there. We feared for our safety, so we turned around at that point," said Russell.
So now, Russell will depend on advanced hikers, who learned of his story, to get to the payload from another direction. He's hoping to hear from them some time later this week. The setback has not impacted Russell's enthusiasm for the project.
"I like to call this a successful failure because we did find where it landed, it's just the difficulty in getting to it right now," said Russell.
Russell says the launch has cost several hundred dollars of his own money. He's currently looking for donations and investors for his Quest For Stars program, which he says will encourage kids to reach for the stars one balloon at a time.