Held on Saturday, March 22, 1997 in Cerro Gordo, North Carolina
The following text was taken, with permission, from an article by Tim Pickens, Rocket Systems Lead, which was published in the May-June 1997 issue of the Southeastern Space Supporter, newsletter of HAL5.
The first time that we attempted our "proof-of-concept" rockoon launch, we went to Cerro Gordo, North Carolina. The planning that went into that trip was quite an ordeal. Just like many of our previous events, this one would turn out to be no less trying on us. Just like always, while getting ready for a big event, something bit us while getting ready the night before. The video camera on the rocket was not working right. Bill Brown had us remove the payload electronics, at least enough for him to perform exploratory surgery. This was quite an experience!
After a short while, Bill said, "Its fixed." That was it. This is what I wanted to hear. We quickly buttoned it up and began to pack up the last minute items. It was late in the night by now, maybe 1 AM.
Gene Hornbuckle and I left late the following afternoon, after spending most of the day packing the U-haul trailer (with the help of Ron Lajoie), which Gene and Gladys Young took; and part of the afternoon calibrating the rocket TV camera. The next time the team would meet up would be in our launch field 650 miles away.
Guerrillas in the Mist
We arrived at the launch site about lunch time and started setting up the rocket/balloon
preparation areas. The night was closing in on us and we were soon to be working by
generator and flood lights. It was probably 75 degrees when we arrived, but the
temperature was dropping as the night came on. Moisture was really getting bad as
the temperature began to plummet and everything began to get soaked with water. This
was not what we were expecting. All of our electronics were getting soaked along with
We had to rush around very quickly to build a make shift tent out of some poles that we had brought in addition to a large tarp. This, along with my propane heater, turned out to be a real godsend. We now had somewhere warm to work and we needed it. Much of the gondola/ balloon rigging was still to be done and I was not prepared to give instructions on how to do it. I was also very short-handed on help. It was obvious that there would be no sleep for anybody who remotely knew how unprepared we were for what was to come next.
Children of the Morn
At 2 AM the following morning I had to get some sleep. I new that we were not ready,
but like always somehow it would all come together -- it had to! The Hale-Bopp comet
was in full viewing as was a full, beautiful moon; and the skies were clear. I could
only look up into the heavens in awe of what was about to happen, and I was fortunate enough
to have been born in this envelope of time and place to be a part of it.
We were about to embark upon a new era in amateur rocketry, and the moment was too perfect for us to fail. Besides, we had put our hearts into what we were doing and had covered every possible scenario that could happen. We had it all covered, or at least that is what we thought. If there would be any problems, it would be trying to fill the balloon or launching it. The wind can really be unforgiving to these types of balloons. I would now try to catch about one hour of sleep in the cab of a pickup truck.
It was freezing cold and there was going to be no sleeping for me. I couldnt get all the stuff left to do out of my head. Did anyone else realize all that was left to do? I jumped out of the truck and went back to work. We were also waiting on Bill Browns gondola video package. As soon as he got there, we began mounting one of the last pieces to this 1000 piece puzzle. We completed all that was needed, then several of us made our way from the tent to the field with the gondola/rocket combination.
It was now time for the Nitrous Oxide Fill Team to come in and fill the rocket. The Balloon Team was working on last minute rigging, while the electronic guys were doing checkouts. The helium/ balloon team came in to begin their filling of the balloon. This would turn out to be a more involved process than I first imagined. The helium is put into the balloon through a long fill tube that is attached to the top of the very thin balloon. The helium tanks were emptied one at a time until the balloon was able to lift more than the payload.
A Big Balloon
During the filling process of the helium, the wind would sometimes rotate the balloon.
That would in turn twist the fill tube and stop the flow of helium. The helium pressure
could far exceed the burst pressure of the tube and could rupture or blow the tube apart --
which would mean the tube could end up in the air above the balloon far away from anyones
reach. Fortunately, every time the fill tube twisted, our fill team was quick enough
to respond to the situation by stopping the helium flow at the tank valve.
This scenario scared me to death. I hate balloons you know. I have had some really scary experiences in the past at some our smaller launches. I just wanted to go somewhere and hide until it was all over with. This would include the balloon lift-off. Someone could then sound the trumpet, and I would come out from hiding wearing a big grin. This was all just a fantasy of course.
Snap, Crackle, Pop
After the balloon was finally inflated and all systems were ready to go, it was time for Greg
to call the FAA, and give the final "Go for Launch" call. Clay was going to
arm the systems after all tasks had been completed and everybody had cleared the area.
After a few minutes into his final checkout and arming, I heard a loud "pop".
I looked up only see everyone scurrying around. One minute later I heard another
"pop". I knew then that the balloon cut-down pyro/ cutters were prematurely
going off. At this point the rope going to the balloon had been chopped in two.
We were not prepared for this occurrence. I had an eerie feeling that this might be the
calm before the storm.
I was waiting on the rocket to come roaring to life at any minute. I couldnt stomach everything that was transpiring. Some of my anxiety stemmed from my ignorance about how the electronics were configured. Clay then ran out to the rocket and cut all motor ignition wires. Boy was I relieved. There was no time to check out the problems, nor were we prepared to fix the problem this go around. It was time to go home now, and everybody was extremely down in the dumps. I felt like I was a pall-bearer as we loaded the rocket/gondola into the back of the truck. My prayers had not come true for this round and boy, was I down!
Preparing for the Second Attempt
After we all returned to Huntsville, we met to decide what to do next. After the team determined what had caused our electronic anomalies, they corrected any potential EMI/electrostatic problems. They shielded all the electronics and installed bellows switches in order to safe the rocket ignition systems until the rocket had reached an altitude of 50,000 feet. I really liked this idea and wasn't hard to do. On to the second attempt!