Robert Black, astronomy teacher at North Medford High School, leads students through a practice run with a high-altitude balloon at ScienceWorks Hands-on Museum in Ashland. The team released the balloon for real in Dayville to photograph last summer's solar eclipse. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]

'HiBal Up'

A documentary chronicling the last few months of preparation before North Medford High School students launched a pair of high-altitude balloons into the sky to assist NASA in photographing a total solar eclipse will screen at North Medford High School this month.

“HiBal Up,” directed and edited by Antonio Melendez of Grants Pass, will be shown at the school’s auditorium at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 21. The event is free and open to the public, with doors opening at 6:30 p.m., according to North Medford astronomy teacher and planetarium director Robert Black.


“(The movie is) about a bunch of young people taking an opportunity that was presented to them, not knowing what it was going to entail, and then just going for it,” Melendez said in a telephone interview.

Melendez is the founder of Heartisan Films, based in Grants Pass.

A couple of years before the cameras started rolling, the 15-person team of students and advisers had been selected as one of 57 across the U.S. to send up balloons from different points along a narrow band that stretched from Oregon to South Carolina — called the path of totality — where a full eclipse would be visible from the ground Aug. 21, 2017. Once airborne, the balloon camera payloads would capture the eclipse from the edge of space as it unfolded.

The project was spearheaded by NASA and Montana State University, with North Medford students launching their payloads from Dayville in northeastern Oregon.

It was the first time a total eclipse had been documented live and in a network of coverage across a continent, according to the Eclipse Ballooning Project website.

The Discovery Channel had considered filming the North Medford team for its own documentary, Black said, but it ended up not making the cut. Soon after, astral photographer John Bunyan had met with Melendez — the two are friends — and clued him in about the project. Melendez asked whether he could get involved.

“I was very drawn to actually create a film about it, because it was a very inspirational story,” Melendez said.

The team’s advisers agreed that while they didn’t have the funds to pay Melendez and his four-person crew, it would be a good idea to chronicle the remainder of the students' scientific journey.

Filming began in April 2017. Melendez and his videographers filmed meetings, practice launches and retrievals on two high-definition cameras and several smartphones. The crew also made the trip to Dayville for the launch and the several days of preparation prior to liftoff.

The film’s title stems from an FAA term “HiBal,” which refers to a high-altitude balloon frequently used by National Weather Service stations.

“It was just really fun,” Melendez said. “It’s like a break from the more heavy projects we do.”

He added the film is ultimately about jumping on opportunities when they come up.

Black said Melendez’s crew meshed well with the student scientists.

“Antonio’s such a mellow soul,” Black said. “It was a really nice blend. There was never any friction.”

In the end, Melendez captured about two terrabytes' worth of footage, he said. He spent two months editing the final product. The moment totality happened and the sun went dark is one of his favorite bits of footage.

“I was torn between filming it and experiencing it,” he said.

The film’s screening also will feature NASA aeronautical engineer Roberto Carlino, who has been working on the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite — TESS — which will replace the Kepler space telescope.

“This should be real exciting,” Black said.

— Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or Follow him at

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