SCC balloon captures eclipse images, former NASA employees find payload

Southwestern Community College's balloon that was launched to take images of the eclipse was found by former NASA employees. (Photo credit: Southwestern Community College)

Most people witnessed Monday’s solar eclipse from the ground. But thanks to a NASA-funded project at Southwestern Community College, there are spectacular images taken from a balloon tens of thousands of feet in the air. The equipment it carried had to land somewhere, and there's great irony in who found it.

A lot of planning goes into launching a balloon up to 90,000 feet while carrying equipment to record pictures and video of a total solar eclipse.

SCC was the only community college to secure a $1.5 million grant from NASA to send a high altitude balloon skyward to expand knowledge.

“We're still launching from Anderson, South Carolina. They’ve been crunching the numbers late into the night,” Matt Cass, one of SCC’s balloon leaders, said.

The launch was successful, and the equipment onboard sent spectacular pictures from 80,000 feet back to the ground, capturing shadows across the curvature of the earth.

Then, the deflated balloon with its priceless payload of data landed in Lake Hartwell, South Carolina, where a husband and wife from Alabama and retired NASA employees happened to be vacationing and hoping to watch the eclipse.

"We said, 'Get it out of the water.' I never thought that we would ever retrieve one of those cameras. A wild coincidence. It was really exciting,” Barbara Cobb said.

It was especially exciting since clouds dimmed their view of the eclipse.

"The thing that came across my mind is, 'Oh, I can't get away from work because it shows up on my doorstep,'” Reginald Cobb said.

The couple called the number on the white boxes and reached SCC’s balloon team.

“When they told me they were ex-NASA employees, I thought they were kidding,” Justin Hess said.

“I didn't believe it either when I heard about it,” Jesse Moore said.

The quick retrieval of SCC’s equipment by former NASA employees makes them proud to participate once again in education.

It’s a project the balloon team said will encourage Western North Carolina kids to consider studying science at SCC.

“Now, they can see people in their community that are being successful at science at the highest level, contributing to projects from NASA. I mean, you don't get any bigger than that,” Cass said.

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