All set to go for gi­gan­tic bal­loon launch

Roads closed, peo­ple warned to stay in­doors as gi­ant $1.2m mon­ster takes off

Central Otago Mirror - - WANAKA NEWS - By MAR­JORIE COOK

Ru­mours of pointy-headed sci­en­tists wear­ing three pairs of glasses spy­ing on outer space from draughty hangars at Wanaka Air­port are not yet true.

Hope­fully, that’s next year’s story.

The launch of NASA’s $1.2 mil­lion plas­tic bal­loon on Sun­day is sim­ply a test flight, with the goal of crack­ing a 54-day flight record.

NASA bal­loon pro­gramme of­fice chief Deb­ora Fair­brother is in charge of up to 25 NASA em­ploy­ees and con­trac­tors pre­par­ing for next week’s aero­nau­ti­cal adventure.

The staff range from bal­loon rig­gers through to uni­ver­si­tyqual­i­fied me­te­o­rol­o­gists and en­gi­neers.

‘‘When we come back next year we will have the science. But we haven’t set up the fa­cil­ity to do that yet. We wanted to do a test run with the bal­loon and demon­strate its ca­pa­bil­ity be­fore fly­ing the science,’’ Fair­brother ex­plained.

From a Wanaka per­spec­tive – a town with 6500 peo­ple and one sec­ondary school – rub­bing shoul­ders with peo­ple from the United States Na­tional Aero­nau­tics and Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion (Nasa) has un­til very re­cently seemed an alien con­cept.

Fair­brother laughs and agrees. Cer­tainly, she never imag­ined when she was young that she would be work­ing for NASA.

‘‘It’s re­ally cool,’’ the uni­ver­si­tyqual­i­fied en­gi­neer grinned.

‘‘When I was at uni­ver­sity, I got the tools and a tool box. I learned about en­gi­neer­ing. I got a masters in me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing . . . and later through con­tacts I found out about a small re­search com­pany that did bal­loon­ing. So I worked there for seven years. Then a po­si­tion came up at NASA in Septem­ber 1999,’’ she re­called.

Fair­brother is based at the Goodard Space Flight Cen­tre at Wal­lops Flight Fa­cil­ity in Vir­ginia.

She started as a tech­nol­o­gist, was ap­pointed to chief tech­nol­o­gist and in 2012 was ap­pointed to her present po­si­tion.

Her ca­reer has al­lowed her to travel the world, in­clud­ing to Antarc­tica, Australia, and Swe­den, man­ag­ing the bal­loon pro­gramme and all its launch op­er­a­tions.

Fair­brother does not per­son­ally at­tend ev­ery launch and will some­times send a mission manager in­stead.

The team in­volves a mix of gov­ern­ment civil ser­vants and con­trac­tors – in Wanaka’s case from aerospace firm, Or­bital ATK.

For all launches, ex­cept Antarc­tica, an in­de­pen­dent range safety of­fi­cer ac­com­pa­nies the team, and this role is per­haps the most im­por­tant of all.

‘‘It may be a per­fect day for launch ac­tiv­i­ties but if the pro­gramme is over highly pop­u­lated ar­eas, they will say ‘No, you can’t go’,’’ Fair­brother ex­plained.

That is be­cause the last thing NASA wants is to drop its 3600kg pay­load of mon­i­tor­ing equip­ment (helium, cam­eras, elec­tron­ics) on any­one’s head as the bal­loon zooms sky­ward at 300 me­tres per minute.

That is why NASA has asked the Queen­stown Lakes Dis­trict to close Wanaka Air­ports gates and im­pose a 2.1km ex­clu­sion zone on roads.

Those on site and within the 2.1km ra­dius will be asked to stay in­doors dur­ing the launch.

It should take about two or three hours for the bal­loon to reach its even­tual float path 33km above the sur­face of the earth.

With any luck, it will stay up there for more than 54 days be­fore de­scend­ing some­where in Ar­gentina.

With prepa­ra­tions fully un­der­way, the main pieces in the jig­saw are to en­cour­age the weather to be­have and have ev­ery­one trim their fin­ger­nails to avoid pierc­ing the bal­loon’s frag­ile mem­brane.

A rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the bal­loon plant is here with a re­pair kit in case of un­ex­pected field emer­gen­cies.

Mean­while, Wanaka Air­port op­er­a­tions manager Ralph Fe­gan con­tin­ues his se­ries of in­for­ma­tion seminars this week with talks planned for homeschool pupils, sec­ondary school as­tron­omy stu­dents, rest home res­i­dents, and the air­port user group. By the time the bal­loon launches, the only sen­tient be­ings on this part of the planet that won’t know about it will be the sub­ter­ranean oc­cu­pants of the air­port’s grassed run­way. ‘‘I haven’t had time to tell the rab­bits,’’ Fe­gan said.


mar­jorie.cook@fair­fax­me­ Frag­ile flight: NASA Bal­loon Pro­gramme of­fice chief Deb­ora Fair­brother demon­strates the sand­wich bag thin plas­tic fab­ric used to build a $1.2 mil­lion bal­loon be­ing launched in Wanaka next week.

Look alike: A Nasa bal­loon sim­i­lar to the one to be launched at Wanaka.

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