Project HALO (High-Altitude Lift-Off): Sky Launch 1

Attempt 3 -- Success in Hampstead, NC. Article by Bill Brown

The following text was taken, with permission, from an article by Bill Brown, Balloon Team Lead, which was published in the May-June 1997 issue of the Southeastern Space Supporter, newsletter of HAL5.

Up, Up, Down?! and Away!

The HALO team met at the launch site in Hampstead, NC in the wee hours of Sunday morning, May 11th. It was very cold (frost collected on the equipment) with absolutely no wind. Perfect conditions for a balloon flight! As the Rocket Team tested out the payload and command electronics and fueled the rocket with nitrous oxide, the Balloon Team (including myself, Ben Frink, Larry Scarborough, and Peter Ewing) unfurled the delicate plastic envelope on the protective ground tarp, attached our home-made Kjome launcher (from a design supplied by Norm Kjome of the University of Wyoming -- thanks Norm!), and then started the inflation process.

As the sun poked up above the horizon, and with just 30 minutes to go before our FAA launch window closed, we ran across 2 nearly empty tanks of helium. Concerned that we would not have enough helium in the balloon to lift the rocket payload, we searched Hampstead and nearby Topsail Beach for helium (not an easy task early on Saturday morning). It turned out the local Food Lion store had two tanks they used for party balloons and sold them to us. This saved the day and allowed us to achieve final flight lift.

Balloon Lift-Off!

The rocket crew lifted the payload and stretched the lines tight, the fill tube on the balloon was tied off and the call to the FAA went out for imminent lift off. With just five minutes to go before the deadline, we released the balloon at 6:59:57 AM and the rockoon headed up smoothly into the still morning sky on its way to the stratosphere.

Spectacular color video (434 MHz) of the balloon and the side of the rocket launch tube could be seen in the command tent. The rocket video was viewable on another monitor, but little could be seen due to the protective plastic wrap around the gondola.

GPS Signal Fades Away

The GPS telemetry downlinked via packet radio in APRS format started to get weak after the rockoon exceeded 23,000 feet. The signal faded completely into the noise by 30,000 feet and we unable to record any more usable position and altitude reports from that point onward. We think that the internal antenna for the packet transmitter put most of the radio signal up and down, but very little signal made it towards the horizon as the payload headed out nearly 120 miles out over the Atlantic. It is also possible that the packet transmitter weakened and died.

“Fire that Rocket NOW!”

At 8:21 am, we calculated the estimated altitude of the rockoon based on the ascent rate to be around 60,000 feet. I said, “Since we are now above 50,000 feet, the barometric rocket safety switches are now armed and the rocket can be fired at anytime.” Of course, we were hoping to reach about 105,000 feet before firing off the rocket. Just 30 seconds later, I happened to be looking at the video of the balloon envelope and thought that the balloon looked pretty full. Just then, one of the seams tore wide open, dumped out all of the helium and the balloon just folded up into a long streamer of plastic! As the rocket and gondola dropped rapidly, I shouted out to Ed Myszka (alias KE4ROC), “Fire that rocket NOW!”. We had just over a minute to issue the fire command before the safety switch disarmed the rocket at 50,000 feet.

Ed keyed down the 2 meter transmitter and anxiously entered the firing code via touchtones. Nothing happened. He tried another time ... nothing ... and then a third (we had only seconds left before the safeties cut in). All of a sudden there was a bright flash and a cloud of smoke and the rocket leaped out of the gondola and straight up towards space.

Bits of plastic tape and the plastic covering shredded off and fluttered past the camera view as the gondola continued its rapid descent. Fortunately, the camera had survived the rocket exhaust blast and continued to work flawlessly until the gondola splashed into the Atlantic Ocean. Although the command was sent up three times, it appears that the second uplink command was the one that began the rocket ignition process.

We were treated to flashes of video from the rocket for about 30 seconds showing tantalizing views of the curve of the Earth. Since the rocket was spinning around, the ATV signal fluttered in and out and made it difficult to lock onto a good picture. After that, the video signal ceased and the rocket parachuted down into the Atlantic. Both the gondola and the rocket splashed down about 120 miles east of the launch site and 50 miles from the nearest land.

A Needle in a Very Large Haystack

Robert Brandenhof (W3RDS) was tracking everything on the chase boat, captained by John McCollum. They were unable to recover either the rocket or the gondola from the ocean since we could not provide them with precise GPS data. Without this, it’s like finding a needle in a very large haystack!!!

Since we launched at a much lower altitude than planned, we estimate the final altitude attained by the rocket to be between 30 and 36 nautical miles high. Although we did not achieve true space (defined as 50 nautical miles in altitude), we did make several first and set several world records. Firsts include the first amateur launch of a rockoon (rocket launched from a balloon), and the first high-altitude launch of a hybrid rocket (hybrid referring to the nitrous oxide/asphalt fuel combination). Claims for world records include the highest altitude achieved by an amateur rocket, and the highest altitude achieved by a hybrid rocket.

Hats Off to the HALO Team!

It’s amazing what can be accomplished when a dedicated group immerse themselves to achieve a lofty goal. Coordinating the construction and testing efforts, transporting the rocket, balloon and support equipment as well as 10 carloads of the group 700 miles from Huntsville is a lot like trying to herd cats! It can be done but takes an extraordinary amount of patience, dedication and time. My hats off to a job well done by the HALO group whose members performed calmly and flawlessly in the face of adversity. The planets definitely were aligned and Mother Nature smiled on us for this flight! Ad Astra per HALO!