Students gather around holding the rope attached to the high altitude balloon at Port San Antonio.
Students gather around holding the rope attached to the high altitude balloon at Port San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Thirty middle school students gathered Thursday morning at Port San Antonio to launch a weather balloon carrying instruments to measure altitude, humidity, and pressure. The balloon would soar 100,000 feet in the air, into the stratosphere, and more than three times higher than the average flight path of a commercial airliner.

The launch signified the students had completed their first year in a four-year program that aims to engage young San Antonians in space exploration focused on lunar caves, which scientists believe will one day house humans on the moon. The program’s students have worked every other Saturday from September to May to launch “Mission One.”

Thursday’s balloon launch allowed the young scientists to see how the tools they created and experimented with all year would work in an environment closer to that of the moon.

“I’m a hands-on learner, so it is important for me to put my hands on something to [understand] it,” eighth grade student Natalie Sherman said. “There’s so much excitement in the newness of this experiment. How many middle schoolers get to launch a weather balloon into space?”

Space architect and board chair of the WEX Foundation Samuel Ximenes declared that as of this launch, “San Antonio has a space program.” Ximenes started the WEX Foundation in 2013, as an educational program for middle and high school students to engage with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curriculum in the context of space exploration.

He told the Rivard Report that in a way, WEX is a workforce development program, creating a candidate pool for what could be a growing aerospace industry.

“We’re trying to develop the San Antonio economy to advance our status as a hub for the aerospace industry,” Ximenes said. “Companies will come here for well trained hires.”

Ximenes said the balloon launch represents phase one of WEX’s four-year program: remote sensing.

The instruments jettisoned Thursday could be used to remotely explore lunar caves. Students tested these tools in what Ximenes calls the analog test site, the Robber Baron Cave south of Loop 410 and east of New Braunfels Avenue. In the next few years, students will learn about reconnaissance and robotics.

Sherman said she most looks forward to the phase of the program that allows students to work with robots to map caves.

Nilo Mackey, a rising ninth grader who plans to attend the STEM Academy in North East Independent School District, said the field trip to the cave was his favorite part of his first year in the program.

Even though Mackey said he felt claustrophobic in the narrow cave tunnels, he said he liked building team camaraderie with his fellow students, who come from all over San Antonio. Mackey also liked developing tools and projects to send up with the weather balloon, even if they didn’t all work out.

“I learned what you do doesn’t always work out, but you can still learn from that,” Mackey said, noting that his most recent idea didn’t work out, even after five hours of work, but that he still wanted to figure out what went wrong so someone else could improve on it in the future.

After he graduates high school, Mackey wants to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one day move to China to start an information technology company.

Much like his students who have worldwide ambitions, Ximenes also has global aspiration for the growth of his program. In the next few years, he plans for the cohort of students to grow to 130 participants. From there, he wants to forge partnerships with international space stations, each of which have their own specialty in lunar exploration.

Mariama Diallo, 13, point an antenna to the balloon to track sensor data stored on the vessel.
Mariama Diallo, 13, points an antenna to the balloon to track sensor data stored on the vessel. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

For example, Ximenes said there are a number of other space stations and research institutes that work specifically on lunar construction, or the practice of using soil from the moon to build structures. While the WEX program focuses solely on lunar caves for now, it could send students elsewhere to gain additional expertise.

Ximenes has been in talks with Korea, Mexico, Canada, and other nations’ programs to create an exchange system that will bring international students to San Antonio, and take WEX’s students abroad.

Ximenes’ other big aspiration is to get one of the students’ instruments into space and onto the moon. That’s coming up next, he said.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.