San Jose man prepares to launch weather balloon


By Julia Prodis Sulek

Publication: San Jose Mercury News (California)

Date: Saturday, September 12 2009



Before dawn today, Ron Meadows and his chase team plan to gather in the driveway of his Cambrian home on their way to the launch site. The equipment from his swimming pool service business will have been unloaded from his pickup truck and replaced with the day’s precious cargo:


Weather balloon? Check. Helium tanks? Check. Simplex repeater? Check.


After a year of research and planning, Ron the pool guy — with no more than a high school education and a fascination with flight and science — will do what few except universities and government agencies do: launch a weather balloon into the stratosphere.

It might as well be heaven for amateur radio operators like himself who will be tracking the balloon’s direction, chasing it to its landing site, and communicating with each other through the simplex repeater attached to the balloon that will record and repeat their messages for a 396 miles radius around the balloon. That’s as far south as San Diego and as far north as Eureka.

Meadows, 53, admits this is no scientific breakthrough. “It’s an extreme novelty,” he said.

He doesn’t know exactly where he’ll launch the cream-colored balloon, but he’ll know the spot when he sees it. He’ll be looking for a clear space in a parking lot or patch of ground free of trees and electrical wires near Los Banos. He and his team will carefully inflate the balloon with helium and watch it rise at an expected 1,000 feet per minute. A modified camera rigged to the balloon is set up to take pictures of the horizon every 15 seconds, with a goal of photographing the curvature of the earth. If the balloon reaches 106,000 feet — that’s about 20 miles high — it should swell to 31 feet in diameter then burst. The parachute should open, and within three hours of liftoff it should drift down to an unknown landing spot as many as 50 miles away.

Meadow’s recovery vehicles will be tracking its location every step of the way using two transmitters dangling from the balloon that will send its coordinates every 60 seconds. The data will be received by computers mounted in the team vehicles that will chase the out-of-site balloon across the farm fields of the Central Valley.

“A million things could go wrong,” Meadows said. “What if this thing lands in the California aqueduct and heads to Southern California? Or what if it lands in farmland and the farmer plows over it? You have to be OK with never seeing this thing again.”

It’s hard to believe he would be OK with it, considering his yearlong obsession and the estimated $2,500 he’s spent building the contraption. It began after watching a PBS special on weather balloons when he thought, “I can do this.”

It combined everything he loved: flight, electronics, ham radio. He called his quest “California Near Space Project.”

Meadows is no scientist or Ph.D. engineer — those are the people whose pools he cleans. But he is nothing if not earnest. And this being Silicon Valley, the place of innovators and eccentrics, there has been nothing to stop him, not even his wife. She got used to heading to bed while her husband stayed up late, researching altitude temperatures so his equipment doesn’t freeze at 60,000 feet, building tracking systems for the balloon, connecting with a ham operator group on the East Coast that has conducted similar missions. He also learned about federal aviation rules and notified a flight service station to ensure that his payload isn’t mistaken for a ballistic missile.

“I call him Inspector Gadget,” his wife of 31 years, Julia Meadows, says. “I don’t really understand it, to tell you the truth. I keep asking him, ‘Now why are you doing this?’ ”

Still, she said, he’s handy around the house: “I don’t have to call a repairman.”

Their 30-year-old son, Lee, is part of the team Meadow’s assembled for the launch. Like his father and grandfather, Lee Meadows works in the pool business. He is riding shotgun in Meadow’s white Ford F-150 truck as they chase the balloon and monitor a computer mounted to the dashboard; John Glass, a ham radio enthusiast and customer service manager for an online library will track radio communications; and Don Irving, a volunteer for San Jose’s Office of Emergency Services will lead the recovery team in his silver Yukon SUV with 17 radio antennas on top. (Irving spends his vacations chasing tornadoes in Oklahoma .)

While ham radio technology might seem old-fashioned to some people, Irving said, the hobby is less about communicating with others — there are cell phones for that — and more about enjoying the radio technology itself. Meadow’s sky-high project adds an extra thrill.

“The object is the fun of putting something in the sky at 100,000 feet and interacting with it — turning radio signals into data on a map,” Irving said.

Meadows feels the pressure. “I’ve been running these tracking systems in my vehicle, testing them for months, confirming that they’re reliable,” he said. “But you just never know.” Still, he said, he hopes to be right under it when it lands.

Mercury News staff writer Julia Prodis Sulek 408-278-3409.