Balloon flight takes senior as close as he can get to space

January 10, 2012

By Tom Corrigan

Josh Chinn holds on to the weather balloon he eventually sent about 100,000 feet into the air. Helping him ready the balloon are friends Shawn Terasaki, kneeling, David Park and Alyssa Wilson. Contributed

On Dec. 29, Issaquah High School senior Josh Chinn, 17, took himself and about 250 of his closest friends and relatives into space, or at least the edge of space, some 100,000 feet up.

For his flight, Chinn used a helium-filled weather balloon attached to a small, square carbon fiber frame. Heavily taped to the frame was a collage of pictures of himself and friends and relatives who have made a difference in his life. Their “flight” into space was, of course, by proxy, through the collage that was placed inside a pouch. Along with the pictures, Chinn put in a patch of the letter “I” such as might be found on an Issaquah High jacket.

Chinn said that for the most part, he just wanted to do something to mark and honor his time at Issaquah High as well as his friends and relatives.

“I just wanted to do something absurd,” he said.

“As a dad, I just feel so proud of him,” Victor Chinn said. He termed his son’s project inspiring, but also said it was “just awesome fun.”

The younger Chinn got the idea for the balloon flight from the Internet. He started calling his idea his senior project, but it’s not connected with his schoolwork at all. It’s just something he decided he wanted to do, a fact Victor Chinn said made his son’s work all the more meaningful.

Powering Josh Chinn’s figurative trip into the outer reaches, the balloon measured about 6 feet in diameter when it first left the ground. Besides the already mentioned items, the frame carried a parachute that eventually eased the return of the launched items to Earth. Chinn was able to keep track of his payload via a GPS such as is used by hikers to let others track their position. A small camera on the frame filmed the landscape throughout much of the flight. The camera ended up taking some noteworthy pictures, especially once the balloon had cleared the cloud cover.

“You can definitely see the curvature of the Earth,” Chinn said. “You can see the blackness of space.”

To help with the launch, Chinn took along three of his friends and his father. Chinn said he spent a lot of time studying wind patterns and settled on Cle Elum as a launch site. The idea was that the balloon would be blown east and not end up in the ocean. The balloon was expected to return to Earth once the air pressure outside the balloon dropped to a certain point. The helium would continue pushing on the interior of the balloon until it popped and the whole thing tumbled down, the parachute deployed by the wind.

Chinn’s flight took about five hours. As expected, the GPS stopped sending signals at about 50,000 feet and Chinn and his crew lost track of the balloon for roughly three hours. Next came what Chinn called some really good luck.

Just going by his calculations about where the balloon might land, Chinn and his group drove about 100 miles east from Cle Elum to the small town of Ritzville, which sits some 203 miles east of Issaquah. They knew the balloon would travel east, but they didn’t know if it would be blown north or south. They waited more than two hours for some sign of the balloon and were just about to give up when they realized the GPS had begun signaling again. They also were surprised to discover the balloon had landed not 10 miles from where they were.

Eventually, they tracked the signal to a cattle ranch near Ritzville. As they homed in on the location of the GPS, they accidentally ran into the owner of the ranch who gave them permission to look for the balloon. They found it about a half-hour later.

Chinn has put together at least two videos of the balloon’s flight, one of which shows what the camera caught every few minutes and one which shows the flight in a lot more detail.

“I never would have thought to do something like this,” said Victor Chinn, an electrical engineer whose small company makes scientific instruments. Josh Chinn said he’s really not that interested in science; he intends to study business in college.

“I wanted to go out and do something crazy,” he said regarding the balloon flight. “People say don’t waste your high school years.”

Tom Corrigan: 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment at

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