The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians joined the space race Friday.
A group of juniors and seniors at Cherokee High School, most of them members of the Cherokee tribe, launched a balloon late Friday morning from their school in the western North Carolina mountains. The plan was for the balloon to reach the edge of space early in the afternoon.
Take-off of the balloon, which was expected to reach the edge of space before bursting, was delayed almost two hours because of fog. But the fog lifted, and so did the balloon -- into a crystal blue sky around 11:30 a.m.
The Eastern Cherokees say that if the balloon reached its anticipated altitude, they will be the first Native American tribe to launch a craft into space.
It wasn’t clear Friday evening if the balloon actually reached space.
Jennifer McLucas, a spokeswoman for the Eastern Bank of Cherokees, said the project was the product of students in science teacher Nicole Jackson’s class.
“The chief’s annual report to the Cherokee stresses the strength of the community and the many strides the tribe has made, including in science and mathematics education,” McLucas said Friday. ”This project is a result of wanting to create an event that embodies the annual report’s theme, taking tribal sovereignty to new heights.
“Last year’s report highlighted Cherokee art among the tribe’s youth, and this year it is science.”
Chief Michell Hicks was on hand, along with a number of other Cherokee officials, to watch the launch.
The plan called for the balloon to reach an altitude of between 110,000 and 125,000 feet -- between 20 1/2 and 23 1/2 miles above the earth’s surface -- before it burst. Aboard the balloon is a GoPro camera, which will record video of the ascent.
When the balloon burst, the camera began descending back to earth, continuing the video. In addition, the balloon and camera are equipped with a GPS device.
“We’ll be tracking it all the way,” said McLucas, who says students were responsible for the project.
Students say the entire flight was expected to take about three hours -- 2 1/2 hours up, and 30 minutes coming down. But students learned that space exploration doesn’t always follow plans. The balloon’s ascent and descent took much longer than expected, and early in the evening, they were still tracking the camera as it descended.
A group following the burst balloon’s path finally retrieved it about 6:30 p.m., from a tree near Lake Marion, east of Columbia. It was about 240 miles southeast of Cherokee.
“We’re all really excited about this,” McLucas said.
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