This time, they came so close.
But the paper airplane flying above Earth attached to a high-altitude balloon only got to about 85,000 feet Saturday, 4,000 feet short of the current Guinness World Record.
This was the second attempt by members of the Civil Air Patrol Fox Valley Composite Squadron to break the record after a first attempt Dec. 1 reached about 51,000 feet.
Far from being undeterred, the group of cadets and adults will try again before the end of February, squadron commander John Fletcher said. "It would have been nice to set the record, but this is a learning experience."
The group was split in two on Saturday morning -- mission control at the DuPage Airport in West Chicago, and the launch center in Kankakee.
The balloon launch was broadcast from Kankakee via Skype. Then, both teams followed the balloon's northeast trajectory over Indiana via a website that broadcast the coordinates of a transmitter attached to the balloon.
Applause broke when the balloon reached 53,000 feet, surpassing the first attempt.
When it looked like the record was within grasp, the room became tense and silent.
Alas, it was not to be.
Just before 1 p.m., almost an hour and 45 minutes into its journey, the balloon suddenly dropped to 74,000 feet.
There were audible groans and "oh nos" from spectators, which included parents, would-be cadets and a local resident.
Then the balloon dropped farther, to 54,000 feet, where the transmitter seemed to get stuck. The current record, set in 2010 by a team in Spain, stands at 89,591 feet.
Far from showing sad faces, the cadets reacted with good-natured humor.
"Good thing this is the decoy," someone joked.
Each attempt is a chance to learn from mistakes and get closer to the goal, the cadets said.
"If we got so close this time, we've got to do it again," said cadet Colin Sullivan, 18, of St. Charles.
Cadet Rameez Baig, 17, of St. Charles, agreed. "It's fun to try. We have to see what happened because we did make it to more than 80,000 feet."
The first attempt failed because the paper airplane flipped in a jet stream and ended up slicing the balloon.
This time, it's still unclear what went wrong, Fletcher said.
The chord tethering the airplane to the balloon was lengthened from 3 to 15 feet, and there was less helium into the balloon to prevent a too-rapid ascent. The whole contraption was heavier, though, because the team decided to use batteries with a longer life.
The group couldn't locate where the ballon fell to the ground on Saturday, so they'll have to rebuild the whole thing for the next attempt, Fletcher said.
Amy VanKerkhoff of St. Charles, whose 17-year-old son Blake is a cadet, watched with her husband and younger son.
"I just wanted to support these guys because it's pretty neat that they come and do this on their holiday break. What other group would sit in a room all day and have such focus," she said.
Terry Andrew of St. Charles watched the launch online at home, and then drove over to mission control in West Chicago to watch the rest of the action.
"I saw this and thought, 'This is something pretty unique,' and wanted to see what it was all about," he said. "I learned a ton since I've been here."
By the end, while squadron members munched on pizza for lunch, someone pulled up a YouTube video of "Taps," which is played at military funerals. Everyone laughed.
"This is a program for the cadets, but the seniors have been having a blast doing it," Fletcher said. "Absolutely a blast."