Project HALO Status Report

Sky Launch 2, Attempt 1 -- Balloon Launch Mishap

Held on Saturday, June 20, 1998 on a NASA barge in the Gulf of Mexico.

The following text was taken, with permission, from an article by Greg Allison, HALO Program Manager, which was published in the July-August 1998 issue of the Southeastern Space Supporter, newsletter of HAL5.

An Awesome Adventure:
Tales of the First Launch Attempt of HALO SL-2

Anyone who knows engineers is aware that the conventional attitude which is prevalent in the profession is that any job can be done on short order.  Schedules are based on everyone knowing exactly what to do, when to do it and everything working perfectly the first time.

This highly overused technique is known as “success driven scheduling.”  But then there is this little thing called “reality.”  Reality is ruled by a lawgiver named Murphy.  As we all well know, The Honorable Mr. Murphy is anything but kind.

The Time Challenge

The HALO SL-2 crew had been working day and night for months to prepare for the first amateur launch into space.  NASA was going to give us a boat ride into the Gulf of Mexico to make it all possible.  It turns out that the funding which NASA was using to support this mission came out of the special low cost launch program project.  The NASA Administrator, Dan Goldin, was briefed that the rockoon had many cost saving aspects that made it a lead contender for this project.  Unfortunately Mr. Goldin ruled that he was not interested in any “air-launch gimmicks”.  Our NASA lead, Vance Houston then presented us, the HALO Team, the option of dropping the mission.  If we were to continue we had to launch no later than the 20th of June or the program was dead!

Given the rule of Mr. Murphy and the challenges of a club-based space shot, the decision to continue was brought before the HALO team and the HAL5 Executive Committee.  The task before us was simply impossible!  Or so one might think given the tasks to be accomplished in just a few weeks.  But then this is the most determined HALO team.  Put to the question, each voted launch!  The game was on!  The entire team snapped into a grand marathon.  Everyone worked day and night into the wee hours.  The week before launch sleep was almost outlawed.  Crew members took leave from their day jobs to push the mission.

One of my favorite stories relates to Clay Sawyer working into the wee hours at Gene Young’s electronics shop.  Worn out, he struggled his way to his car to head home to catch a minute of sleep.  When he got to his car he discovered he was too tired to drive.  The next morning Gladys Young wanted to know why he did not come back into the house to sleep on one of their fine spare beds.  The answer was that Clay just did not have enough energy to make it out of the car back to the house.  So he had the luxury of sleeping a whole two hours in his car before he had to hit it again.  Unfortunately that was the norm for the group as we frantically prepared for this mission.

Avionics Crisis

Just days before we were to launch, the backplane for our avionics boards totally failed in the manufacturing process.  This meant that the job would require a long laborious hand wiring process.

We were also having problems with integrating software for two of the other avionics boards.  Two guys were removed from other important tasks to do parallel development of simpler boards which could still meet mission requirements.  This last minute hardware and associated software passed initial preliminary tests and was baselined as core flight systems.  Not because they were better, but because they were simpler and were expected to present us with less integration problems.  Everything was going down to the wire.

Parts were still being built.  Systems were still under integration.  No one had slept over the past week more than a few hours per night.  The crew would not yield.  We packed all the loose parts and headed to the barge that was to carry us into the Gulf of Mexico.  The team had bet that we could complete systems integration on the barge before launch.  No one would say uncle!

We departed on Wednesday, 17 June.  The trip to the NASA Michoud facility took several hours.

Into the Midst of History

The NASA barges used to transport large hardware for the space agency are huge relics from World War II.  Originally built to off-load cargo ships for Pacific Islands which had no harbors they were latter refurbished to serve NASA.  Inside, these ships look like a set from a World War II naval movie.

There were two barges at the dock when we arrived, the Orion and the Pearl River.  The Pearl River barge was the vessel destined to ferry us on this grand adventure.  The Orion is one of two covered barges used to transport Space Shuttle External Tanks from the NASA Michoud facility to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).  Prior to that, the Orion had served to transport the first stage of the Saturn V moon rocket to Cape Canaveral (as KSC was known then).  The Pearl River barge had an open deck.  Both barges were large ships.  They are not what one would typically think of as a barge.  Each had upper decks with a wheel house, galleys and crew quarters (including a shower).

The Orion had several two man crew quarters which together with the galley were air conditioned.  The Pearl River crew quarters only had bunks for four.  The crew quarters and the wheel-house were the only air-conditioned rooms on board.  Two of those four bunks were spoken for by the NASA guys, one went to the captain, one for Gene Young (who never slept except for when we got hit by the squall line storm).  Guess where the rest of us slept?  Mostly on the deck (when it wasn’t raining).  Some managed to squeeze in on the floor in the crew cabin.  For the most part we were camping out at sea.  Fortunately most of us didn’t have time for sleep anyway.

Into the Belly of the Beast

Luckily most of the crew got to sleep on the Orion Wednesday and Thursday night before our early Friday morning departure.  The Orion was awesome!  The covered deck had a Quonset hut (a building that looks like the upper half of a giant corrugated aluminum drainage pipe) type roof which resulted in a facility which looked like a hangar for a large blimp.  The roof was about 70-80 feet above the deck, far higher than the Saturn V first stage required (even with a trailer underneath).  If you yelled inside the echo would resonate for several seconds.

The side railing on the Orion was a wall about 8-10 foot high.  In the walls on each side were hatches exactly like those on the ship in the latest James Bond movie which was going to launch a missile at the U.S. to provoke war with China.  To sleep in the quarters of such a magnificent piece of history, which is still transporting external tanks to the launch site, was quite frankly a real thrill.  While the bunks reminded me of my stint in the Army, the doors and hatches were strait out of the World War II navy!  Yes, that was cool!

Setup Aboard the Pearl River

Thursday was devoted to setup.  The transport truck was off-loaded to the barge.  Equipment was stowed.  Tim Pickens, Steve Mustaikis, Al Wright, Glen May and several other crew members erected the canopy for the rocket assembly area.  Then they assured that the launch gantry was assembled.  The helium and nitrous-oxide bottles were brought on-board and fixed into position.

We made last minute runs to Radio Shack for electronics parts, and to grocery and hardware stores.  Gene Young set up the avionics assembly and checkout station in the wheel-house.  Clay Sawyer, Ben Frink, and Bill Brown set up the mission control station on the upper deck next to the wheel-house.  Quite a busy day indeed!

Off to Sea!

On the morning of Friday 19 June, we rose with the sun and prepared to set off.  The Tug Edwin N. Bisso had arrived and tied on to the side of the Pearl River to pull us from dock.  Once we got into the channel the tug left the side of the Pearl River and connected a tow line at the bow.  Unlike river barges which push their payload, we were towed through the channel and into the Gulf.

As we headed out the long trip down the channel, the HALO team began initial launch preparations for the rocket and avionics.  I was busy on my cell phone fruitlessly trying to make contact with the recovery boat, the Sand Dollar, our ground station on Dauphin Island, the recovery plane, and the HAM network in Mobile which had set-up to support this mission.  Quite a bit of coordination was required for these aspects of the mission.  Unfortunately this became a real problem at sea.  On that Friday, the HAM team was in the field setting up, and Captain Dean Scarborough of the Sand Dollar was making preparations for his trip.  The HALO Press Site Team was obviously not yet in place.  Unfortunately, the communications problem were only beginning.  At least at this point roaming services were available!  At sea, it is a different matter!

Communications Problems

Once out to sea, cell phone roaming services were not available.  There was a cell phone network set up for the oil rigs, however.  I tired in vain to use this network to establish essential mission communications.  You had to call the network operator, enter who you were trying to call, credit card information and such.

Unfortunately signal interruptions would always block part of this information.  Then you would be disapproved.  Upon getting the standard disapproval due to poor signal quality you could then to call an operator and apply verbally.  Again due to poor signal quality the operator could not hear you properly and would subsequently punch in the wrong numbers.  Of course you would get disapproved again.  Then you try to get the same operator back on-line and talk them through it again.

Usually somewhere in this long process the signal would drop-out, again due to poor signal quality, and you would have to start over.  As it turned out, it would take 45 minutes or longer to attempt a single phone call at great cost.  The result, busy signals or no answer.  I once got the hotel clerk were our Press Site team was staying.  She put me on hold and guess what, thanks to the poor signal quality the signal dropped out and the call was terminated!

I had talked NASA into putting a satellite phone on the boat for communicating with the FAA and launch ranges, but they did not want to let us use it for anything else due to high usage fees.  After I presented the on-board NASA representatives with the problems we were facing with communications, and the mission criticality of these communications, they relented to allow me to use the satellite phone.

When you use a geosynchronous satellite for phone conversations, the speed of light starts becoming a problem.  There is a definite time delay between what each party says and the time the other party hears it.  This is not like regular telephone conversations.  Old fashioned World War II type radio protocol is required.  Unfortunately, the general lay person you are trying to contact has a hard time understanding this!  Though it was possible to get through, this was at best a most difficult mode of communications.

Squall Line on the High Seas!

The plan was to launch SL-2 in the early morning hours of Saturday, 20 June at about 7 AM.  This might have worked if Mother Nature didn’t have other plans!  As with SL-1 we had planned to start the final launch preparations at about 3 AM.  The crew got up and started preparations.  We then got a report from the weather service of a squall line to our north.  The Tug took us to the south in the hope that we might avoid it.

Unfortunately the squall line was intent on paying us a little visit.  20 minutes before it hit we got the notice.  There was no way we could avoid it.  Rocket parts and the entire mission control center lay exposed.  We had to rush to secure our equipment!  Frantically the rocket systems were boxed up.  Unfortunately, in the rush many critical parts went into boxes and places unknown.  Clay Sawyer used his naval experience in wrapping up the mission control center.  That canopy which would have blown away was used to overwrap and directly support all the mission equipment.

The squall line hit!  The winds were intense!  Ocean spray flew over the bow of the barge onto the lower deck.  The waves were crashing!  Lighting was flashing.  Al Wright and Tim Pickens lead a rescue mission to secure the rocket assembly canopy and equipment boxes by adding lines to the deck (via deck mounted D-rings) and railing.  The legs of the canopy were jumping and popping around as we attempted to secure them.  Canopy struts blew apart but were pulled back together tied with lines and secured with duct tape.  We did all that we could.  It was risky working where metal struts were whipping around frantically in the air.

Then the wind got really rough, howling with near hurricane force!  I am NOT exaggerating -- we have the video to prove it!  We sought shelter underneath the overhang of the upper deck and watched as the winds struggled do undo all our handiwork.  The winds blew and tore at the canopy.  Lines broke loose.  Soon the tent and its pole looked like a mule kicking at the deck as the aft poles broke loose and fluttered in the wind bouncing between the sky and the deck.  The canopy tore and the poles blew apart.  We figured we would loose it all but fortunately all the major parts remained on the large deck of the barge.

Eventually the squall line blew through.  In its wake we were several hours behind schedule with equipment scattered every where!  Putting this mission back together was going to be a real mess!

To be continued in Part 2

Ad Astra per Ardua -- “To the Stars by Our Own Hands”

For more information on Project HALO, contact HALO Project Manager Yohon Lo at (256) 658-2043 or via E-Mail at:

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This file was last modified on Saturday, 15-Apr-2017 13:19:44 EDT