Project HALO Status Report

Sky Launch 1, Attempt 3 -- Success in Hampstead

Held on Sunday, May 11, 1997 in Hampstead, 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.

Third Time’s a Charm

I want to start this article by congratulating the whole team on their outstanding effort on our first rockoon flight.  I am very proud of everybody that was involved.  This was not an easy challenge that we embarked upon.  I am amazed that we made it appear so easy to those on the outside looking in.  We all know that there was nothing easy at all concerning what we did in less than three years.

I have been involved in other rocket group activities before, but none with the drive and vision to succeed more than this one.  I have been extremely impressed with everyone’s willingness work with each other under sometimes stressful conditions.  This thanks goes out to the electronics guys, the ham guys, the programmatic people, the paper pushers, and to the broom sweepers.  It all takes a dedicated team!

Rockets, Balloon, and Fate

When I came on board this project, all I wanted to do was to work with rocket propulsion design and subsequently, a space-shot attempt, having absolutely nothing to do with big balloons.  Fate would not allow things to turn out that way.  This group was determined that “balloons and rockets are a marriage made in heaven”, and this would be an ideal way to achieve very high altitudes at dirt cheap prices.  The club had previously raised enough money to take on such a project, so I dove in -- and have been barely hanging on ever since!

I have been involved in this project for over 2-1/2 years and have often stopped and asked myself “What in the heck am I doing in this mess?”  Then it dawns on me that I love a challenge.  Designing and building big rockets with little to no money has made me a real MacGyver of rocketry.  I can’t go to the hardware store or even to the grocery store with my wife without trying to transform something on the shelf into usable rocket hardware.

I do this for three reasons: (1) I’m trying to get around building something from scratch by using some preexisting configuration or shape on the store shelf, (2) because I’m too lazy to build parts from scratch, and (3) because I know that many of the parts that we need would take lots of time to make and the materials can be costly.

The real objective here is to design and build a rocket with everyday stuff for a price tag close to nothing.  Folks, it ain’t been easy.  It blows my mind that there is so much to consider in the development of a project of this magnitude.  Thank goodness that we have a super team that can achieve anything to which we put our minds.  Because there is such a wide range of disciplines in this group, we have been able to tackle all aspects of this project with our core group.  Working together and cross-training has forced us all to be better engineers, friends, and well rounded persons.  Sometime I learn a little more about some of the members than I’d like to!

The Third Time: Back to Hampstead

After returning to Huntsville, we had our weekly meeting, at which we debriefed the club on the new launch site prospect.  The field was about a mile long by 300 feet wide.  Other than the tough grass, it would be ideal for our next launch.

I was not looking forward to going back to Hampstead to do this again.  It would only be one week later that I would return to Hampstead to do it again.  The enthusiasm was dying quickly.  I could not have survived another trip.  The prevailing wind direction change was about to lock the door on us for the summer and there would be no way we could launch for fear of the balloon could head west instead of out to the Atlantic Ocean.

The next time we left from Huntsville, I waited until some of the others had also gone.  This time I and a couple of others were not going up alone.  We would all commit together and we would all decide our launch fate together, from Hampstead.

Stormy Weather in Hampstead

We arrived on Friday to setup, but the thunderstorms would not allow us to have a Saturday morning launch.  We would have had to setup the camp in the middle of the thunderstorm.  As the bad weather encroached, we couldn’t help but think about the possibilities that maybe we wouldn’t get to launch again.

We all got up the following morning to find out that it was quite calm.  Steve and I had gotten a good nights sleep in a large fishing boat that the nice land owner (Cary Bruton and wife) had offered as an alternative solution to the sleeping problems that I had experienced in the past.  They were outstanding hosts, and accommodated us in more ways than we deserved.  Steve and I had attempted a good night’s sleep in a large fishing boat.  I say attempted because sleep was impossible due to Ron Creel’s chainsaw snoring -- which was in need of a good tune-up!

The whole community was very receptive to what we were trying to accomplish.  To the local news people, North Carolina was about to make history again, just as was done at Kitty Hawk many years earlier.  It might not carry quiet the weight of man’s first flight, but still had some appeal.

Site Preparation (aka. Battle of the Tents)

Saturday would show to be a much needed day for lots of ground preparation.  Many members of our group ended up mowing the grass in the large field in order to help reduce the potential lethal punches that the tall grass could deliver to our fragile balloon.  At one of our previous launches, we had to deal with wind gusts and alot of serious balloon handling, which ultimately led to the balloon whipping around in the wind and catching one of our members eyeglasses and ripping a huge hole in our balloon.  We wanted to minimize any threat of this happening in the grass.  Real rocket science is not possible without a lawn mower -- ask our chief propulsion guy Steve Mustaikis.

Gladys and Gene Young, Alfred Wright, Steve Mustaikis, and myself spent many hours trying to build a tent from a tarp in the middle of what seemed like the most windiest day of my life.  We couldn’t seem to get this tarp/tent to stay in place.  I was really getting frustrated after a couple of hours.

Ronnie and the Sparkies (electronic guys) had erected a nice new tent in a matter of minutes.  We were on the other side of this huge field still trying to keep ours together.  We had already spent $50 on poles, rope, and spikes and I had to make another run to the hardware store to spend another $50 dollars on wood.  This tent exceeded $100 dollars and could never be reconstructed again!  We finally completed it after four hours of engineering and hard work.  This time Ronnie would come out looking a little better than us by his $100 dollar tent purchased for the Sparkies.

As the Rocket Fins Turn

We spent alot of time wondering if the winds would ever die down.  It was getting close to dark now and time was slipping through our hands.  We still had to do electronics checkouts and a video calibration.  We barely completed these tasks by dark.

It was finally time to place the rocket into the gondola and all was looking on schedule -- until it didn’t want to slide in!  The fins were rotated 15 degrees off from where they were suppose to be!  I was freaking out!  It suddenly dawned on me that we had gotten everything out of whack back in Huntsville when we had to replace our igniter system.

For those who might have missed that experience, it takes about four hours to go in and make any corrections to these areas.  We had a big brain busting session for about 30 minutes on what to do.  We really didn’t have time to go in and correct it properly, so we decided to rotate the entire fin assembly in relation to the rocket.  This would restore the location of the umbilical wiring from the rocket to the gondola.

Did You Say “Leak”?!

After doing this, a leak check was performed and it was discovered that the system now had developed a leaky O-ring where the motor met the tank.  This could jeopardize the whole mission if we lost all our nitrous oxide on the way up.  It was looking like the whole assembly would have to come apart.  The mission might have to be scrubbed until Monday morning.  This would have been the last straw for everyone.  We were all broke and tired.

Steve and Al were still tinkering with the situation and decided to rotate the assembly just a little in an attempt to reseal the O-ring.  I heard a “pop” and my heart rushed.  I knew that the problem had gone away and no permanent damaged had been noted.  Would the assembly go into the gondola though? After attempting to place the rocket in, it was obvious that we would be going for launch.  Leaks in flight had always concerned me because I new that we could leak all of the oxidizer out during our balloon ascent and nobody would know until the rocket motor igniter was fired.  This is the main reason that I wanted to fly audio on board so if we did develop a leak and it could be heard, we could make a decision on whether or not to launch the balloon.

We buttoned the rocket up and enveloped the entire gondola into a clear plastic sheet.  This would be used to protect the rocket from the harsh cold environment during the balloon ascent.  We were relying on the plastic in addition to two band heaters on the tanks in order to keep everything warm.  This would complete everything until morning and the rocket would remain sleeping in the makeshift tent that we had built.

Frosty the Rocketman

Steve woke me up by banging on my truck.  It sounded like thunder -- not again!  I rolled out of the truck after about one hour of sleep.  Boy, was it cold!  I was shivering so bad that my teeth were rattling.  It was time to make it happen.  Boy, did this seem familiar.  Al and Steve loaded the rocket with nitrous while Gene and Clay prepped the electronics.  I got called down to help the balloon guys who were getting ready to fill the big balloon.

Boy, I didn’t want to get involved in that end of the operation.  It made me extremely nervous and I really hated it.  I’m a rocket guy, but I had come up with a method to fill balloons faster and they weren’t sure how to hook it all up.  I ended up being the swap boy for helium tanks as Ben Frink and Bill Brown did the honors.  There were many other volunteers that helped out as well.

“How did I get stuck down here?” I kept asking myself.  I had been doing nothing but rocket stuff for 2½ years.  This wasn’t suppose to happen this way.  I was the “Rocket Team Lead” -- and I had a badge to prove it!

Go for Launch

After we finally got the balloon filled, it was all systems “Go”.  I was running up and down looking at all the rigging to do last minute checks.  Everything looked good!  “Let’s do it!” I thought before something really stupid comes up and bites us.  I decided to stand in a safe place and watch the balloon release system work as we designed it.  It had never been field tested.  Steve, Gene, and All were all patiently holding the rocket/gondola up awaiting the balloon that would fly over and lift it all up out of their hands.  Greg finally yelled “Go for Launch.”  Boy was I glad to hear this.

Greg was to take a hammer that I handed him and quickly pull the release pin that would launch our balloon.  This didn’t seem to work the way that I had intended.  Greg couldn’t seem to get the pin out and he was really murdering the whole launched balloon launch system.  I thought he was going to kill the balloon as it jerked back and forth.  I quickly grabbed it and said “Here is how I intended it to be used.”  With one quick pull, the Kjome launcher system released perfectly and the balloon shot up into the sky.

Isn’t it ironic that the one guy who hates balloons more than anybody ends up releasing it to start the mission?  I had finally been tamed, balloons were now my friend (until later).


The rocket/gondola guys released the package as the balloon passed over, and boy was it a beautiful site.  I couldn’t believe that I was finally getting rid of this thing, and the best part was, that it was heading straight for the Atlantic.  As I ran around and congratulated everybody, I couldn’t hardly contain my emotions.  To alot of us, this rocket was pretty neat and all, but we had better ways of doing things next time, and we just wanted to see it gone and close this chapter!

I went over to the electronic tent to look at the data and video and it really looked good.  Ed Myszka and Clay were monitoring all the systems in the “nice tent” that Ronnie bought.  They really looked like they were something sitting there, but I wasn’t sure what.  With all the computer stuff going and the pretty lights in the tent, all I could think about was stuff like “Roger and Wilco” and I’m not sure why.

The Long Wait -- NOT!

I decided to leave for a minute because these boys really seemed like they had it together and I was ready to go to town to answer a call to nature.  The moment seemed right.  I never took these long winded balloon ascents very seriously.  Our fearless leader (Greg), always said, “Once you get them off the ground, you won’t have any problems with the balloon.”  I knew that its would be a good two hours before the rocket was ready to fly.  The balloon was no longer visible from the ground with the naked eye, so I left.

After staying gone for a good 30 minutes, I decided to return to the others.  I pulled across the field at my usual country pace and noticed that everybody was jumping up and down.  They were yelling at me saying, “We fired the rocket!  We fired the rocket!”  I thought “You people are out of your mind and this is about the lowest, dumbest group joke I’d had ever seen -- and you all will end up jinxing the whole launch if you don’t shut up.”  It then dawned on me that maybe I was the nut.  It was true; they had fired the rocket because the balloon burst and I had missed the whole thing!

This was my punishment for releasing the balloon.  I had put my heart and soul into the rocket and had missed it!  I changed my mind again.  I never hated balloons so much in my whole life.  It was all over and time to go home.  I would later watch it on video feel some of the excitement, but it was a little different.  We would only end up going a little over 30 nautical miles; but that was OK, because the rocket did fire and nobody was killed.

On to HALO Sky Launch 2!

Well, it’s time to end the final chapter to this long book (‘cause Ronnie is about to kill me!).  I wrote all this to help those who could not attend this event, to give them a sense of what happened.

In closing, it looks like three is a charm.  I think the whole experience is something that everybody in the membership should be a part of and get into this next go around.  With HALO Sky Launch 2, it’s still our rocket, our design, our effort -- and most of all, our success.  This is still an all amateur mission.  It doesn’t matter where the money is coming from; it’s the work and input from the club that makes it happen.  Money just sits in the bank without us.

We are not charging anything for our service or effort nor do we plan to make any financial gains through our efforts.  I feel all these things define the mission to be 100% amateur and we still have a good chance to get the first amateur rocket to reach 50 nautical miles!  We need to go out and show the world that we can do more than just set the amateur altitude record as we just did -- but also that we can achieve many records and hold them for years to come!  Ad Astra per HALO!

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