Gloversville Student Shoots for the Stratosphere

GLOVERSVILLE, N.Y. — Austin Reese is aiming high. Really high.

Think 90,000 feet into the atmosphere.

"It's something I'm very interested in," the senior student said Friday, sitting in his science classroom at Gloversville High School. "For all my life, I've been interested in engineering, science, math."

It takes all of those skills, and more, to be part of the project Austin is working on. He is one of nine students from around the world included in the Perlan Project, a manned glider flying mission sponsored by the Airbus aviation company.

Perlan first flew its glider in 2006, reaching a record gliding elevation of 50,000 feet. The goal this summer is to fly a second pressurized glider at 90,000 feet, in the suborbital reaches of the stratosphere. Along with breaking its own record, Perlan will also carry several experiments that have never been performed in the stratosphere before, and can only be accomplished on a long-duration flight.

Austin Reese is the creator of one of those experiments.

"We can send a balloon up to 90,000 feet, but the balloon can't stay there for a long period of time," said earth science teacher Chris Murphy on Friday. Murphy is Austin's teacher, and is a member of Teachers in Space — the program that made Austin's experiment possible.

"It opens up opportunities for small schools, to be able to do this kind of thing," Murphy said. "This is the excitement. This is the energy for me and for them."

Austin's experimental question is simple in principle: can we protect people from radiation as they travel through the stratosphere? It is important to all of us — the stratosphere extends from eight miles to 31 miles above the Earth, the range at which many commercial passenger jets fly. At those elevations, humans are exposed to x-rays and gamma rays from the sun, which can lead to cancer under long-term exposure.

"For instance, a pilot or a stewardess, in their job they are almost constantly at 20,000 feet or more," Austin explained Friday. "Our objective is to create some kind of material and implement it into clothing, and shield these people who work at such high altitudes from radiation."

It's an auspicious goal for a high schooler, but Chris Murphy says Austin is up to the task.

"He's a great kid. He's that kind of caliber of kid that everybody wants to be successful," Murphy says, after listing off the many advanced courses that Austin takes.

There is another goal however, that may be out of reach: Nevada.

"We're going to be testing the projects, in the practical setting where it's all happening," Austin explains. The Perlan glider will be tested in late April, at an airfield near Minden, Nev., and Austin will have the opportunity to load his experiment and run it through the initial paces.

But travel costs money, and Austin needs to raise $8,000 in the next month to make the trek.

"It's about the knowledge. It's about the learning," Austin says. "This is going to be something that I've really always wanted to do: make a change in the STEM field."

Together, Austin and Chris Murphy have set up a GoFundMe page. Murphy explained Friday that he will fund his own trip; all the money raised will be for Austin's expenses. If even more is donated, Murphy will take Austin to Argentina in August, when Perlan's glider officially takes aim for the stratosphere and a new record elevation for gliders.

"This is a unique experience," Murphy said. "To motivate people to donate, I guess ... it's being able to give these kids an opportunity, to work with professionals at that level. It's just such an intense experience."

If you believe Austin Reese, it will be life-changing.

"I think it could kick-start my whole educational career," Austin says, "and the entire future in general."

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