Launching My Career with Missiles and Space Balloons

Launching My Career with Missiles and Space Balloons

Darwin Bingham, Engility’s Technical Director for its Space and Mission Systems Group (SMSG), had an idea on how to combine his various hobbies, including radio communications, model aeronautics, and photography, into launching a high-altitude balloon. A handful of interns and Engility employees spent several hours after work devising a plan, creating the structure, and testing the location software to send a balloon thousands of feet straight up.

My Role

I created the radar reflector with Colin Burke and I helped design the rope harness to connect the box (with GoPro cameras, an attached antenna, and a Mark Bruno – the SVP for SMSG – mini-figure inside) to the parachute and balloon. Engility is currently conducting a photo contest using mini-figures of its senior vice presidents and CEO. We couldn’t pass up the chance to put the Mark mini-figure into the stratosphere! My role on launch day was to photograph the experiences of the day. As photographer, I was able to stand back and observe the project as a whole. Some of the best images were of everyone’s faces as the balloon quickly rose into the air until it disappeared, and even better images of the excitement that came along with the balloon’s final retrieval.

Launching My Career with Missiles and Space Baloons


We hoped to reach an altitude of 88,000 feet before the pressure caused the balloon to explode. In the end, we achieved an altitude of 100,000 feet and we made some memorable, creative discoveries. The launch served us a fun, hands-on opportunity to design, build, and test a high-altitude balloon and, more importantly, to spend time creating something with the other interns. The project gave us time to get creative and expand our minds. The most important thing to me is to be constantly learning, and hands-on experiences are a fantastic way to learn.

The most memorable element of the day was chasing down the balloon’s location as it fell and altered direction from its predicted path. While we were on the chase, I was the navigator and at times the documenter. Darwin would call out the current latitude, longitude, altitude, temperature, and pressure every minute, and I would write down this information. I would put the latitude/longitude coordinates into Google Maps to determine the location of the balloon with respect to its location above the Earth.

We would then alter our path based on the balloon’s position relative to where we had predicted it would be at this time and altitude. At one point in the chase, the GPS overheated due to the hand warmers placed inside the box, and we lost signal. However, we were able to calculate the altitude with the pressure and temperature information. Later, as the balloon got higher up, and the temperature decreased, we regained signal and started getting packages of data again.

My Day Job

This is my third summer internship with Engility. I am studying mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech. When not launching balloons, I spent my days working on a missile-intercept and orbital-payload project. The first objective of our project was to insert a rocket into orbit at a desired apogee, burnout velocity, and flight-path angle. The second objective was to counterattack an incoming threat missile, terrestrial launch site, and orbiting satellite with an interceptor missile. I got to work on this enriching and challenging project with an intelligent team of engineers. We spent our first weeks researching rocket propulsion, numerical integrators, guidance laws, etc. The rest of our time was spent doing calculations and coding in MatLab to produce a successful program with various interesting plots and outputted values.

Overall, my summer experience has been enjoyable and enriching, and I am a glad that I took time to get involved in the high-altitude air balloon project.

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Posted by Dana Gilroy

I am a Junior Space Intern with Engility this summer. I am studying Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech. I hope to make my mark in the aerospace industry with my dedication to learning and passion for the work I do.