All set to go for gigantic balloon launch
Roads closed, people warned to stay indoors as giant $1.2m monster takes off
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.
firstname.lastname@example.org 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.