Local Port Stanley heroes rescue package from near-space for space camp kids and
Ontario Special Olympics
On the morning of Saturday September 30th, it was likely unknown to Randy Hentz,
John Jackson, and Fiona Nisbet, three residents of Port Stanley Ontario, that they
would play a pivotal role in helping the dreams of 100 kids come true. Around 6:15
pm, a small package was recovered almost 25 km into Lake Erie after completing a
monumental journey to near-space and back. This package contained a very important
payload – the DNA of 100 kids – and had spent the day floating high above Earth,
fulfilling the dreams almost every kid has once imagined: to go to space. This was
done by sending their DNA, the very essence of what makes us who we are, to near-space.
The idea came from Ray Bielecki and his son Brett, the founders of AstroNuts Kid's
Space Camp in Newmarket Ontario. The club is focused around providing kids who are
passionate about science and space with a safe place to share and learn more about
their interests. Kids from the Greater Toronto Area gather every few weeks to learn
about science, technology, and outer space from a wide range of educators including
robotics specialists, members of NASA and the Canadian Space Agency, university
professors and scientists, and other educators to inspire the next generation's
love of learning and science. Each year would culminate in an inspirational event,
from talking with former astronauts to live-calling into the International Space
Station itself. After every year, Ray wanted the next project to get even bigger.
"Dare to dream" was his motto. This was the birth of the AstroNuts Space Odyssey
Project, an attempt to send a high-altitude weather balloon containing its 50 club
members and 50 kids of the Ontario Special Olympics to space. While many space enthusiasts
have sent various items to near-space (Lego figures, human hairs, pictures, etc.)
using high-altitude balloons, this would be the first time that, biologically, this
many kids at once would be sent up.
After over a year of planning, the launch date arrived on September 30th, at 9:00
am from Goderich Ontario. Cheek-swab kids were generously donated by Canadian DNA
Services, and the swabs of 100 excited kids were placed in the small package containing
a GPS tracker and two camcorders. Local weather data predicted the balloon to ascend
close to 100,000 ft. As the atmosphere nearly disappears, the balloon would pop
and a parachute would safely descend the package near Stratford Ontario. The team
would collect the package and return the DNA to each kid with a certificate congratulating
them on their journey to the top of the world, telling them they have successfully
reached for the stars and dared to dream. On the toughest day that they have, or
on a day they just want to make a positive influence, they can look at that certificate
on their wall containing their DNA and say "Whatever faces me today, it is nothing
compared to my DNA having gone into space!"
After a couple hours of tracking the balloon, it was clear that the weather models
were incorrect as the balloon had gone over London, almost 50 km off course. After
another hour, it appeared the package was lost, as the GPS showed the package 2
km in the air above Lake Erie. Once wet, the GPS would be unable to transmit its
location. The team was ready to pack up their equipment and head for home, reassuring
the kids that they've made it to space and their legacy would live on. Hopefully
someone would eventually come across the package, find the return number, and call
Ray. In the meantime, at least the kids would still get their certificates. Phones
began to buzz with Facebook notifications as parents and kids who were tracking
the package online began to realize it was lost in Lake Erie.
Before packing up they figured they may as well make a couple calls to the local
OPP detachment, Yacht Club, or Legion, and leave an advertisement about the package
being out there. One member joked about chartering a boat, but after that idea simmered
among the group it quickly turned into a last hope. The closest town to the landing
location was Port Stanley. It was a gamble, highly implausible that someone there
could be of any help in such short time. The odds were stacked against them and
the package was most likely lost. The GPS soon stopped transmitting, so drifting
currents may have moved it from its last known location. Yet the team headed for
Port Stanley anyway.
Around 4:45 p.m. the team arrived. Ray approached the first person he saw, Randy
Hentz, and began to explain the situation. From Randy's perspective, it would have
been easy to dismiss Ray, who began to frantically spout things about balloons,
space, and boats. Yet he patiently listened to Ray's plight. At that time, Randy
was likely unaware that his courtesy and eagerness to help Ray set into motion the
very events that lead to the successful rescue of the package, ensuring the dreams
of those 100 kids come true. Randy introduced Ray and the team to John Jackson and
Fiona Nisbet, owners of the local Kettle Creek Marina. Like Randy, John and Fiona
were immediately oblivious to the fact that 100 kids were relying on their decisions.
After hearing the story, John and Fiona generously agreed to sail to the last known
location and look for the package. To John, who has rescued people from the lake
before but never a box, this was just another trip onto the water.
Four members of the team sailed 25 km out onto the water with John and Fiona around
5:30 that evening in search for the package. After 45 minutes, they arrived at the
last known location, the boat slowed down, and they began to search. "There it is!
I see it, red straight ahead!" one team member said. Sure enough, the package floated
tranquilly in the distance, bobbing up and down on Erie's calm waves, waiting to
be found. They sailed towards it, where Fiona fished it out. After another 45 minutes
they arrived back on dry land and discovered that the camcorder footage and DNA
card was intact, ready to be pasted onto certificates and presented to the eagerly
awaited children. In total, the package traveled over 150 km, and reached an altitude
of 116,000 ft., nearly record breaking and around three times higher than most commercial
aircraft! To put that height into perspective, Mount Everest is 29,000 ft. high.
Reviewing the footage showed the beautiful Ontarian landscape, checker-boarded with
thousands of farms, and bordered by the beautiful lakes Huron and Erie, stretching
hundreds of kilometres to the horizon. Even more fascinating, the beckoning blackness
of space could be seen. This gorgeous footage would have never been recovered if
it weren't for what happened in Port Stanley that day. Even in the rare chance that
someone months or years found the package and contacted Ray, the footage and the
material onboard would have been destroyed.
Retrieving the awe-inducing footage and the DNA that will act as souvenirs of 100
kids' journeys into space would not have been possible without the collective efforts
of Port Stanley residents Randy, John, and Fiona. Their actions, generosity, and
willingness to help total strangers are a testament to what it means to be Canadian.