Huge NASA balloon may be just start
Excitement is mounting in Wanaka as NASA’s proposed balloon launch draws closer.
The launch of the plastic, ‘‘stadium-sized’’ helium balloon was announced last year and it is being touted as a potentially record-breaking 54 day flight.
But it is just dawning on many Wanaka people this is no ordinary hot air balloon.
Wanaka Airport manager Ralph Fegan has been doing the rounds of airport neighbours and community groups for weeks to explain the project and the transport shutdown required for public safety reasons.
Tomorrow evening, he hosts another public seminar at the Lake Wanaka Centre.
The Wanaka Community Board recently watched a NASA video explaining the balloon is about the size of the Louisiana Super Dome and should take two hours to reach the edge of space.
The plastic skin is about as thick as a sandwich bag and there is a one in amillion probability of the payload falling and striking a person on the ground.
Reassuring, previous launches of similar balloons ‘‘have never significantly injured’’ amember of the launch crew, the video explained.
The elegant, easily damaged balloon is understood to be worth about $1.6 million and was transported in a container, which is now at Wanaka Airport. About 25 technicians and scientists are also in Wanaka preparing for the launch.
A 100 tonne crane from Smiths in Invercargill is on hand to assist the launch - it is understood such machines commonly have a $1000 hour charge out rate - and an early morning temporary shut down of public roads is planned in a 3km radius of the airport.
The Wanaka and Luggate fire brigades will be helping with traffic control and road closures.
Fegan suggests the Tarras side of the Luggate Red Bridge, along Kane Rd, is a good viewing spot for the public.
If the launch was successful and NASA enjoyed Wanaka - and it seemed they did because they loved fishing - it could be the start of a long relationship, Fegan said.
‘‘Next year, we could have 65 people here for a few months.
‘‘ If this works out, there could be people coming here every year for about 10 years.’’
Asked by the board why NASA chose Wanaka, Fegan said he believed the low population around the launch site, March climate and winds, location on the 45th parallel and available hangar space were key points.
The scientists had researched the area thoroughly and trawled through years of meteorological information, he said.
NASA has spent at least $55,000 laying fibre optic cable at the airport.
Councillor Calum MacLeod said that investment alone was a good return for the ratepayers.
Inspection: Wanaka Airport operations manager Ralph Fegan gives NASA Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility operations manager Dwayne Orr, crew chief Don Roberts and lead technician Scott Hadley a tour of the airport in August last year.
Getting ready: Ralph Fegan, Wanaka Airport operations manager.