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

Attempt 3 -- Success in Hampstead, NC. Article by Greg Allison

The following text was taken, with permission, from an article by Greg Allison, HALO Program Manager, which was published in the May-June 1997 issue of the Southeastern Space Supporter, newsletter of HAL5.

HALO Sky Launch 1 Flight to the Edge of Space
(Greatness on the Ragged Edge)

How the Launch Day Began

It was pitch dark at 3:00 AM on the Mother’s Day morning of 11 May. The generators whined and sputtered in the background. It was cold -- actually a record cold for that day. The weather report from Wilmington, North Carolina said it was 45 degrees. Yet when I picked up my flashlight that had been out overnight I found it coated with a thin layer of ice. Wouldn’t you know it, I had no coat, just a tee-shirt and a regular shirt. Needless to say, I shivered as the goosebumps climbed up my back and down my arms. They served well to awaken me after only a couple hours of sleep. The storms of the previous day had blown through. There was no wind. It was calm, dead calm.

The cold still wake the storms left behind made for the perfect day to launch a rockoon. Voices were crackling over the earphone of my belt mounted two-way radio. I could hear the Electronics Team and the Rocket Team, each on separate channels discussing launch preparations. This is how the day began that a small dedicated group of space enthusiasts from Huntsville Alabama would reach up and kiss the edge of space.

We rolled out tarps, tarpaper, and plastic to protect the balloon from the stobs and stubble of the freshly mowed grass airstrip. The 141,000 cubic foot polyethylene weather balloon is only 0.35 mils thick, as compared to a 3 mil thick human hair. We had to take extraordinary care to protect it. Next the ground cloth and the balloon were lain out. The balloon layout stretched about 100 feet. At the head was the trailer with the helium tanks. On the other end, 100 feet from the bottom hook of the balloon, the gondola bearing the 7 foot 4 inch hybrid rocket was set up. In the middle of the balloon layout was balloon launcher -- our own homemade Kjome launcher.

We lined up the whole assembly using the North Star and pointed it almost due east toward the Atlantic. The Atlantic coast was only a couple of miles away. The Electronics Team’s mission control center tent was about 150 feet north of the balloon filling station and the rocket preparations tent was about 50 feet from the rocket filling station. We had set up this camp the day before, just a few miles north of Hampstead, NC.

The HALO Operations Teams

There were six badged Project HALO operations teams on the field that morning. The Rocket Team consisted of Tim Pickens, Steve Mustaikis, and Al Wright. The Balloon Team consisted of Bill Brown, Ben Frink, Larry Scarborough, and Peter Ewing; plus local volunteers George Andrews and Monta Elkins. The Electronics Team consisted of Ed Myszka, Clay Sawyer, and Gene Young. The Runner Team consisted of Ron Creel. The Security Team consisted of Ronnie Lajoie and Gladys Young. The Document Team consisted of trust-proven reporters including Penn Stallard, Charlie Killebrew, Dusty Powers, and Jesse Scarborough. (Unfortunately, Inside Space reporter Amy Houts was unable to arrange travel to Hampstead). We also had two non-HALO badge groups for other “Press” and for “Guests”.

For security reasons, Ron Lajoie had designated me as sole member of the Command Team. I maintained communications between the other teams, the press, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Had there have been any winds, I would have also commanded a team of plastic handlers who would have held up two large sheets of plastic to prevent the balloon from grazing the ground. Fortunately we were spared from winds.

Filling the Balloon and Rocket

Helium tanks were rolled out to fill the balloon, as were the nitrous oxide tanks to fill the rocket. The Kjome-style balloon launcher was positioned at the appropriate distance down the balloon as calculated by Bill Brown. Filling for both balloon and rocket began at about the same time. The balloon would require about ten tanks for filling (we had brought 11) and would therefore take longer. Tim Pickens had designed and built a fill manifold that would let us connect three tanks at a time to speed up the process. We had just enough helium -- and only one balloon. There could be no errors. The rocket filling was completed first. As we continued filling the balloon, the Electronics Team was conducting final systems checkout.

By the Skin of Our Teeth

I established communications with the FAA using my cell phone. I was required to maintain contact with the Wilmington, Raleigh, and Washington D.C. centers. The Rocket Team was ready, the Electronics Team was ready, the Balloon was ... we had a problem! Two of the helium tanks, as delivered by the supplier, were empty! Here we were at 06:10, 20 minutes until launch time, on a Sunday morning without enough helium. There would be no welding shops open. What could we do?!

First I asked the FAA for an extension to our launch window. They would only grant us 35 minutes. We had to launch the balloon no later than 7:05 AM. They could not extend our waiver beyond that point. I knew that the ABC News cameraman Dusty Powers had a local phone book on him. With my megaphone I called him over. No one knew any welding shops operators so the thought occurred to me, “What about party balloon places?” The local Food Lion grocery store was open. After all, we only needed two bottles. So I called Food Lion. I spoke to the manager there. She said, “No!”. I talked her into calling the main store manager who was off duty.

Meanwhile I called Wal-Mart (which was 20 miles away). While I was on hold waiting for the manager at Wal-Mart to check her bottles Food Lion called back to again say “No!”. Of course I lost my line to Wal-Mart by taking that call. I asked the Food Lion shift manager if I could talk to her store manager. At first she declined but I managed to talk her into it. So I called the Food Lion store manager directly.

Of course, I had explained to each one of them that we were the group they had been seeing in their local news for the past few days, that we are a nonprofit educational group trying to develop trying to develop a low cost means of flying student payloads into space, that we were putting their community into the history books, that we would pay them their market rate, and much more.

The answer was once again “No”. The problem was the contract Food Lion had with their helium vendor to keep the bottles on site at Food Lion. I explained that we had bottles which we could exchange for security till we were done; that as a highly visible nonprofit group, we lived in the public eye, and that in-fact the news media, including ABC News, Channel 3 from Wilmington, and Inside Space were there taping us. Therefore we had to live up to our honor. Once again she said “No”, but indicated she would look into it.

Wasting no time I sent George Andrews and Peter Ewing to the Food Lion store with Dusty Power’s cell phone. The clock was ticking. It was 06:30. (It normally takes 10 minutes a bottle to fill. We had filled all of the helium we had on hand. It wasn’t enough. I called Wal-Mart again. Once again my call waiting beeped and it was the Food Lion. This time they said “Yes!”. The guys were already there. They loaded and started back.

At 06:40, I am starting to get worried. I call the guys on the cell phone to tell them to step on it!. They inform me that they are almost at the site. They arrive, unload the tanks, and commence final balloon filling. I reestablish contact with the FAA, and work out launch signals with the rocket crew.

At 06:59 All crews were stand ready. I announced over my megaphone to the HALO Teams, press, and visitors that “Launch is imminent.” At the end of the balloon chain, Steve Mustaikis, Al Wright and Gene Young hoisted the 100 pound gondola bearing the rocket up over their heads. Larry Scarborough then asked me to release the locking pin from the balloon launcher. I gave it a sharp yank, but it was not enough. Then I remembered that you almost had to strike it with the hammer to free the release pin. Tim Pickens, not wanting to waste time explaining what I had realized, stepped in to save the day. “Rocketman” Tim Pickens launched the balloon.

The balloon climbed into the sky looking like a silent tornado and lifted the gondola from the hands of the gondola handlers. Up and away it drifted. The crowd shouted and cheered. It was a fantastic balloon launch! We were all ecstatic! Just to get to this point was a tremendous feat. The balloon launch occurred at just three seconds prior to 7:00 AM. Just five minutes before the end of our deadline. It was such a thrill to see that balloon soar out over the Atlantic. Larry Scarborough’s son Jesse was video taping from inside Larry’s van. Later we would hear his voice on the video saying “Bye balloon, bye!”.

Tracking the Balloon

The media cameras are coming after me but I am heading for the control center tent. Everything looks good. The FAA is asking me for positional coordinates and I am reading them off Ed Myszka’s computer screen as downlinked live from the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) receiver onboard the rocket. The gondola video shows the balloon overhead, while the rocket video looks out over the horizon through the plastic wrapped around the gondola, the “rockoon cocoon” as Bill Brown called it.

Everything went well till the balloon reached 30,000 feet. Then for some reason we lost the GPS down link. Later we would find out that another group had the same problem with the same transmitter which we were using for the GPS packet data downlink. In their case the transmitter had a failure in the final transistor amplifier stage. The fact that our GPS downlink antenna was on top of the rocket just over the metal avionics canister probably didn’t help either. All other systems continued to work fine.

We continued to receive video downlinks from both the gondola and rocket cameras. Regularly, the FAA called me back asking for positional updates. Bill Brown was forecasting balloon position based on latest rates and winds aloft analysis. The balloon continued to climb. It was caught in a 110 knot jet-stream, which was rapidly carrying it way out over the Atlantic toward the Gulf Stream.

A recovery boat had been dispatched from Morehead City. Local North Carolina volunteers Debbie Odom and Bob Brandenhof were onboard John McCallum’s boat, the Grasshopper, in hopes of recovering the rocket. Unfortunately the Wilmington ham radio repeater didn’t have the range to maintain contact as they went out far into the sea. We lost contact with the recovery boat. Even marine sideband radio would not reach directly. Therefore we were not able to post recovery coordinates to the boat.

At about on hour before the scheduled rocket launch time, Rocketman Tim Pickens left the launch site to take care of some urgent business. Steve Mustaikis and I watched the balloon video. He pointed out how the gondola was spinning relative to the balloon. I said “It’s a sinusoid, watch, in a few minutes it will reverse and spin the other way.” We watched and surely it did. All systems were A.O.K. HALO SL-1 was on it’s way. I stepped out of the tent again to give some more interviews with the press.

Tranquillity to Hell Breaking Loose!

Everything was laid back now. Bill Brown calmly announced that we are now above 50,000 feet, therefore the rocket was now armed for launch. Radiosonde bellows switches were preset to prevent firing below 50,000 feet as a safety precaution. In the background the generators wined. The sunlight was now extremely bright. Questions poured from the news media.

Suddenly, Steve Mustaikis split the tranquillity, “Launch the rocket!” he yelled. “What?!” I said and I bolted from my chair. I could hear Ronnie (who did not know the jet stream had already taken the balloon well past the safe distance from land) shouting, “No you can’t do that!” “The balloon popped!” responded Steve. Concerned about the vertical angle of the prospective launch, I rushed into the mission control tent. Ed Myszka was busily punching launch codes into his uplink transmitter.

I looked at the gondola video. The ruptured balloon was acting as a streamer keeping the rocket launcher pointing straight up. “Launch the rocket, Ed!” I confirmed. The screen blanked on his uplink. The next image was a flash of light. The plastic on the gondola was blown off and the rocket plume was a dot on the screen. The rocket was out of sight in seconds. The gondola continued to fall. To release the gondola parachute, command uplinks were issued to fire the balloon cutdown squibs. Each fired as commanded. We stepped out of the tent to announce the successful launch of the HALO SL-1 rocket. Everyone yelled, screamed, and cheered!

Tim Pickens walked back into the compound. When we told him we had launched the rocket he thought we were just teasing him. The funny irony is that the rocket man who always likes to taunt us with the phrase “I hate stinky balloons” launched the balloon and missed the launch of his own rocket. (Believe me, Tim was NOT laughing.)

HAL5’s Project HALO Adds to the History of Rocketry

Bill Brown estimated that the balloon was over 60,000 feet up when the balloon ruptured. The bellows switches would not have permitted the rocket to fire if it was below 50,000 feet. Based on the range of possible launch altitudes Ron Lajoie and others estimated that the SL-1 rocket reached an altitude between 30 to 36 nautical miles. We literally kissed the edge of space. We have at least four world records.

  1. The first ever high altitude ignition of an amateur rockoon.
  2. The first high altitude ignition of a hybrid rocket motor.
  3. The world altitude record for hybrid rockets.
    No government, no company on Earth has ever came close to our record.
  4. The highest flight on any amateur rocket ever.

The champagne bottles came out. Ronnie, standing embarrassed in front of the press, could not pull the cork off his bottle. I came to his assistance. He thank me and splashed us all with champagne. We all got a bath! We all cheered and whooped!. We all got what we were looking for, confirmation that we could indeed launch our rocket at a high altitude. HALO SL-1 was a proof-of concept mission -- and the concept was proven!

It should be noted that it is no small task to launch a rocket from a balloon. The first thing that one must understand is that solid rocket fuel will not ignite and burn in a vacuum. You can make it all ammonium perchlorate. The amount of oxidizer makes no difference. In a vacuum your motor will not burn. The secret is that the fuel must be under pressure. The military knows this lesson well. All high altitude motors have to be specially designed to ignite at altitude.

Also I ask you to consider what it takes to keep a liquid oxidizer at 70 degrees-F after ascending for nearly an hour through the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere where the temperatures fall to 60 below zero. HAL5 is the first non-superpower entity to accomplish this feat!

Balloon Failure Mode Analysis

Later, we played back the balloon gondola video and watched the balloon as the gores and panels prematurely stretched out in a full circle. It appeared that the channel duct which was intended to vent the excess helium got choked off during the twisting of the balloon envelope. The balloon reached an over-pressure condition and an entire seem line opened at once. It looked like “Pack-Man” opening his mouth.

If the balloon had reached it’s operational altitude of 105,000 feet, the HALO Sky Launch 1 rocket could have reached over 64 nautical miles. When we launch Sky Launch 2, we shall beat even that!

Kudos a Million

I want to heartily thank all those who made the HALO SL-1 mission possible: Matt Beland, Bill Brown, Ron Creel, Peter Ewing, Ben Frink, David Hewitt, James Hopkins, Gene Hornbuckle, Ronnie Lajoie, Steve Mustaikis, Ed Myszka, Tim Pickens, Herman Pickens, Clay Sawyer, Larry Scarborough, Mark Wells, Alfred Wright, Gene Young, and Gladys Young; with support from George Andrews, Bill Axenroth, Monta Elkins, John Fox, Philomena Grodzka, Christie Harper, Rick Kauffman, Gene Marcus, Larry Larsen, Melanie Pickens, Chris Pickens, Dusty Powers, Drew Prentice, Steve Unger, and many others.

These individuals worked extremely hard many for over two years to make this flight possible. This dedication speaks highly of their vision and character. When things looked tough and the skies were gloomy, these people pushed on through. I also want to thank Cary Bruton for use of his grass airstrip, Benny Godwin for use of his farm for the first attempt, Penn Stallard for assisting me in many aspects of logistics coordination, and Debbie Odom, Bob Brandenhof, and John McCallum for going miles out to sea in the recovery boat. I also want to express special thanks to Mr. Terry Williams of the FAA, for without his support and understanding, we would never have received permission to launch.

And I especially want to thank you, the membership of HAL5, for all of your support. Ad Astra per HALO!