Cherokee becomes first tribe in space

news balloonIt’s 20 degrees outside and Spencer Thomas is standing on a Cherokee soccer field holding a balloon.

“Hopefully, everything goes according to plan,” he said.


It’s not just any balloon; it’s a weather balloon. Deemed the launched specialist, Thomas is part of Element Advertising, a group that teamed up with Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Cherokee High School to send the balloon into the stratosphere last week, thus becoming the first tribe to conduct such an event. 

“We’ve never done anything like this before, so hopefully we can get this off the ground and see what happens next,” said Eastern Band’s Principal Chief Michell Hicks.

The 1,200-gram meteorological balloon is attached to a payload that includes three high-definition GoPro cameras (with upward, downward and sideward views). The inspiration for the science project was partly due to the sensational sky dive jump of Felix Baumgartner, who successfully launched himself from 128,000 feet in the air as part of a promotion for Red Bull energy drink. Baumgartner had GoPro cameras setup on his suit, which made for an astounding visual experience.

“His jump was really innovative, and we’re hoping to be able to capture the curvature of the Earth like he did,” said Christopher Sams, art director for Element. “The camera used to not be up to pace like it is now, and it’s much easier today to be able to do this.”

The system has a parachute right under the balloon. When it pops at around 120,000 feet, the parachute will deploy and descend about 15 feet per second. This translates to about a 2.5-hour ascent and about 40 minutes for the return back to Earth. 

“We’ve heard that we’re the first to do this, which is exciting,” Sams said. “It’s something creative and community-oriented and makes for a beautiful annual report that everyone in the community can see.”

The entire contraption weight just under five pounds, which meets Federal Aviation Administration guidelines. It also includes a parachute that must be able to be shredded by a jet engine and a reflector that can notify aircraft of the balloon being within vicinity.

“We’ve got a lot of balls up in the air, and it’s taken a lot of things to make this happen,” said Matt Levin, assistant art director for Element. “This really ties into the community theme this year of sovereignty by showing just how strong this community is, how much it’s expanding.”

Five students from the high school were chosen as “Cherokee Space Ambassadors.” Gabby Thompson, Tagan Crowe, Bradley Welch, Cecilia Magana and Ryanne Oocumma are all in Nicole Jackson’s 11th/12th grade advanced biology class. In preparation for the event, Element brought the project into the classroom, where the students weighed each part being used and also came up with calculations of when and where the balloon will land. As of launch time, the balloon was expected to have a 200-mile landing radius. 

“It was such a cool experiment, and it really represented everything the Eastern Band has accomplished over the past several years,” Welch said. “Education is a big deal for tribal leadership, having built state-of-the-art, green schools for our youth. It is nice to be able to show them that we take our education seriously, too.” 

So, at 11 a.m., the balloon was released into the bright blue sky above. Cheers echoed into the nearby mountains as hands were held high in an effort to be seen by the rapidly ascending cameras. 

“The launch exemplifies the strength of the Eastern Band’s thriving community, and with this exercise, these high school students are taking the tribe’s sovereignty to new heights, literally,” Jackson said. “It’s exciting to see the whole school and community involved in the experiment, as it is a learning experience across many subjects that activates critical thinking skills, deduction skills and much more. I’m so proud of these students for embracing the task.” 

Editors note: Watch a short video of the balloon ascending into the stratosphere is available at, search “Cherokee weather balloon.”


The Naturalist's Corner

  • Fingers still crossed
    Fingers still crossed Status of the Lake Junaluska eagles remains a mystery, but I still have my fingers crossed for a successful nesting venture. There was some disturbance near the nest a week or so ago — tree trimming on adjacent property — and for a day or…

Back Then with George Ellison

  • The woodcock — secretive, rotund and acrobatic
    The woodcock — secretive, rotund and acrobatic While walking stream banks or low-lying wetlands, you have perhaps had the memorable experience of flushing a woodcock — that secretive, rotund, popeyed, little bird with an exceedingly long down-pointing bill that explodes from underfoot and zigzags away on whistling wings and just barely managing…
Go to top