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

... continued from Part 1

Launch Preparations

The crew began to pull out all the equipment again.  There was of course many problems finding critical components which slowed our process.  We discovered we had some questions about the balloon.  We needed to talk to Mike Smith, Chief Engineer at Raven Industries.  Fortunately, due to some extra mission requirements at Raven, a receptionist was on-hand who could give us Mr. Smith’s phone number.  We woke Mike Smith up on Saturday morning, the first “free day” he had in many weeks after an intensive proposal effort.  He was very helpful in talking us through everything we had to do.  Unfortunately, we would soon find out we did not have time to take all those steps.

Ben Frink was busy assembling an antenna which we had received with no instructions.  Bill Brown and I were discussing inflating a tethered pilot balloon to guide the tugboat in matching wind velocity.  At 8 AM, Bill contacted Dauphin Island and told the Press Site team that, due to the storm, there would be a 2-1/2 hour launch delay.

I started making the required satellite phone calls to the federal agencies which controlled the range and air space.  As it was a Saturday in which the military agencies had no training exercises planned, no one was available at any of their offices.  The FAA is, of course, always there.  They informed us of a little point of which we had previously known nothing.  Our mission had to be over and back in the water no later than 1 PM!  This meant we had to launch by 11 AM.  And it was already 10 AM!

The Race to Launch on Time

Haste was in order!  I talked to each team lead.  We had to cut to the chase, drop assembly of the other antenna, and begin filling the balloon as final electronics and rocket assembly was still underway.  This was a high stakes schedule.  We didn’t have enough time to inflate a tethered balloon to help the tugboat captain manage our wind velocity.  We would just have to wing it!

The rocket team reported that the time required to assemble the rocket exceeded the time required to launch.  I told them to give it their best shot!

We began balloon inflation.  The tugboat struck out a course to give us a straight run matching the wind.  The balloon began to rise above the deck.  Then the rocket team came through.  They heroically pulled their systems together ahead of schedule.  Then the avionics were assembled and checked out.  The rocket was assembled and placed on the launch gantry as we continued with the balloon inflation.

As we didn’t have time to inflate a tethered balloon to guide the tug before we inflated the main balloon, we had to deal with wind gusts across the deck of the barge as we began the initial inflation of the flight balloon.  This meant several crew members had to physically hold the balloon down during the initial inflation process.  Imagine holding a balloon with over a hundred pound of lift when the deck temperature exceeded 100 deg-F.

John Price was exerting all his effort to hold the balloon down.  He was as red as a beet and sweating bullets.  He quite understandably begged to swap place with me.  Having once held onto a similar balloon myself my sympathy poured out to him, but he did not know the mission requirements and could not maintain contact with the FAA and the rest of the launch crew.  I had to tell him to hold on as he cursed my soul.

It is not easy being at the top at times.  Sometimes it breaks your heart, but you have to make those tough decisions.  I commanded the photographer from Shift magazine to remove his camera gear and assist the balloon team.  He didn’t like it but mission assistance was the criteria by which he was permitted to be on the barge.  He pitched in and did his part.  The heat was searing the crew on the deck.  Andy Welch went around the deck with a gallon jug full of cold water giving everyone a drink.  I ask him to pour my part over my head.  That felt like deliverance!  It was like cold fire!

Later, when I looked at Bill Brown, I saw that he was turning from red to purple!  He was almost speechless as he held tight to the fill tube to prevent it from twisting.  I told Penn Stallard to get him some water.  She said, “No! I already tried.  He nearly bit my head off!”  I said “Give him a drink and make him drink it!”  “No”, she replied, “he won’t do it.”  I said, “Bill you take that water form Penn or else!  Penn, give him the water now and don’t take no for an answer!”  She gave him the water, and he took it without any trouble.  I was afraid he might get heat stroke.

Helium Tank Difficulties

Our NASA team lead, Vance Houston was in charge of the fill manifold and the helium bottles.  After filling with the first 10 bottles on the starboard (right) side of the barge, he and much of the crew wanted to continue to fill the balloon from the helium tanks on the starboard side.  Unfortunately, the rest of those tanks were the reserve tanks that HAL5 had set aside to use with the spare balloon in-case of a failure with the primary inflation.  Use of those tanks would have obligated HAL5 for $438 -- money that we did not have.  Launch time was pressing us.  Over the popular objections of several crew members, I insisted that we use the tanks on the port side which were paid for by NASA.

The launch clock was ticking as we attempted to switch the fill manifold to the port side helium tanks.  Unfortunately, those tanks were not lined up with their nozzles pointing in similar directions.  We tried to twist the bottles around but they would not budge.  This made it impossible to connect the fill manifold as it was designed.  Cries went out from the crew to go back to the starboard helium bottles.  The launch clock was about to run out.  I refused to swap sides and called in Tim Pickens to assist Vance Houston and to solve this problem on the port side.  With much difficulty we managed to find a way to connect five fill nipples between 10 bottles to continue the inflation.

Final Balloon Fill

We calculated the final fill require for the balloon.  Bill Brown and I got into an argument relative to the required balloon fill.  After heated discussions I temporarily yielded to Bill Brown.  Then Al Wright jumped me on exactly the same matter a bit latter.  I went back to Bill and we had quite an argument!  It turned out that our problem was terms and definitions.  At that point I realized that the balloon was already slightly over-filled.  Filling stopped and launch procedures were enacted.

The load cell on the balloon indicated that we had more than enough lift available.  It was connected to a cable tied between two D-rings on the deck of the boat.  This system enabled me to pull the flight train tight before we launched the balloon.

The Balloon Launch

I radioed Andy Welch, the NASA transportation officer, to speed up the tugboat to create an aft-blowing wind to lean the balloon back.  The balloon shifted back a bit (but not enough).  Steve Mustaikis declared that we were back well enough.  I looked up.  It was leaning back some.  If it were leaning back too far it would have jerked real hard on the rocket.  I took the cue and ordered launch of the balloon.

I held the flight train taught as Glen May cut the cord which launched the balloon.  At first all looked well.  The balloon was drifting back toward the aft end as we had planned for it to pick the rocket from the launch gantry.  Then something went wrong.  As I went to reach for my camera, I saw our rocket leaving the launch platform and coming at us.  The balloon did not go over the aft end of the barge the way we envisioned it!  Instead it started to ascend straight up just forward of the rocket launch gantry!

The rocket was dragged over the gantry.  All might have ended well if the uplink avionics module had not snagged on a new piece added to the launch gantry for stiffness when crew members were on the ladder servicing the rocket.  If we had one more inch of clearance we might have reached space!

Like a bow and arrow, the 210 pounds of lift of the balloon pulled hard against the snag.  When the uplink avionics module finally released, it, along with the gondola pole and the rocket shot forward.  Despite the shock, the rockoon still held together.  All may have ended well had not then the last piece of the rockoon train, the gondola video package, also snagged on the launcher.  The shock temporarily stopped the gondola, but not the rocket.  The 120-lb rocket sailed right off its launch pin and down to the barge deck!

Seeing this mishap in progress, I yelled “Hit the deck!  No!  Run!  Run!  Run!  Run!”  We all ran into the galley area to mitigate any further problems.  The electronics package was still working perfectly after falling 25 feet onto the steel deck of the barge.  The rocket video and GPS package were essentially transmitting “Hey guys!  Here I am!”.

Al Wright heroically went out and safed the pressure tank.  The rocket was then disassembled.

Meanwhile, Back on the Balloon

The balloon drifted up to 100,000 feet where the overpressure of the extra helium fill burst it.  We had finally established communications with the recovery team.  The boat was in place at the right coordinates to recover the balloon and gondola.  Of course, Judge Murphy was still in charge.  Upon announcement of failure to launch the rockoon, a Mobile HAM operator told our recovery boat to go back home.

Upon learning of this, Bill Brown tried to countermand that order, as we wanted to recover the gondola electronics.  The recovery boat had been positioned at the drop zone.  Unfortunately, after he departed, the HAM operator on-board the recovery boat turned his radio off immediately.  We couldn’t get through to tell them to return to the point.

Strangely enough the gondola splashed down within a mile of a tug operated by the same company as the tug Edwin N. Bisso, the Canal Barge Company.  They already knew what it was so they picked it up for us.  Unfortunately, it would now take us several days to recover it from them.  By this time, the salt water had wiped out all the electronics.

After the mission was over, we spent a little time policing up and talking among ourselves about the whole thing.  Then many of us just started dropping dead from shear exhaustion and over heating. 

I had bought a bunch of hamburger meat and had the usual duty of cooking for the crew.  The evening was ripe so I forced myself back into the world of the awakened with the dreadful idea of fighting a headache and exhaustion to cook as I knew I should.  Well, fortunately our Captain was both a Cajun who knew how to cook, and quite a fisherman.  Early in the morning before our launch he caught a large King Mackerel.  He cooked it on a gas grill which Al Wright had bought for the mission.  He also prepared Cajun Rice. 

So I stumbled out to the deck and was greeted with the most wonderful aroma.  There was plenty for everyone.  Not only was I relieved to not have to cook, but I was treated to the absolutely best meal I ever ate in my life!  That added quite a high point to the mission!


We didn’t get to launch our rocket into space; but we successfully demonstrated a free-standing inflation of a large balloon from the deck of a sea vessel and launched that to the edge-of-space.  That was really the main thing that NASA wanted to see.

The rocket, well, it was string-launched to about 25 feet over the deck.  Fortunately, it was recovered.  There are still strong prospects for flying this rocket within a year.  It is mostly a matter of raising about $14,000 dollars to pay for the mission costs as HAL5 will be on its own for the reflight.

The main lesson to be recognized here is one we all know well:  the learning is in the doing.  As any bird would attest (if it could talk to us) you have to fall out of the nest a few times before you can fly.  That happened with us before we flew SL-1.  And now before too long we shall fly SL-2!

Of course, there was some disappointment over not launching the SL-2 rocket into space, but that disappointment is well-tempered with the sense of the adventure we embarked on.  Here we were a club, a chapter of the National Space Society, riding out to sea on a World War II ocean barge, towed by a tug, to brave adverse conditions, face an impossible schedule, fraught with unforeseen obstacles, poised to launch a balloon to the edge of space, and a rocket into space.  Despite all the obstacles, everything came through except for the mere clearance of an inch.

It was a true odyssey, a sea space odyssey -- quite an adventure for a club project.  While some people are watching stories about people living their lives on TV, we are busy living ours!  The memories of our experiences are rich!  It was like competing in the Olympics.  This first SL-2 mission was absolutely an awesome launch attempt!  It was so darn rough, I just can’t wait to do it again!  The adventure continues.  We need not sit around and talk about going into space -- let’s fly!  Join us in our odyssey into space.


On behalf of HAL5, I would like to thank the many players that made this attempt possible.  To the Rocket Team of Tim Pickens, Steve Mustaikis, and Al Wright -- I salute you.  You, and your support personnel who could not attend pulled off an amazing feat in getting the rocket ready on time.

To the Electronics Team of Gene Young, Clay Sawyer, John Price, and Bill Brown -- I express a heart-felt “Thank you!”  I am amazed and awed by the number of hours you put in to get all this equipment working, from the antennas on top of the rocket, to the transmitter on the bottom of the gondola video package.  Not to mention the ground support equipment.  Wow!

To the barge launch support staff of Ben Frink, David Hewitt, Johnny Jones, and Glen May -- Thank you for your three days of intense effort (not to mention all of your pre-mission support).  We could not have gotten this far without you.

To Press members Felix Vikhman, Taras Kovaliv, and our own Penn Stallard -- Thank you for going above and beyond the call of duty to help out.

To our remote support team of Captain Dean Scarborough, Pilot Jim Jeninski, Danny Carpenter and his GCATS volunteers, and the entire HALO Press Site team -- Thanks for your hard work, patience, and understanding during this initial experiment.  We will definitely do better next time!

To our NASA support team of Vance Houston, Andy Welsh;,  the captains of the barge Pearl River, tugboat Edwin N. Bisso, and crewboat C. D. White; plus the folk at NASA Marshall and Michoud -- Thank you very much for your generosity and hospitality.  It is clear to say that this first attempt for SL-2 could not have been done without your support, both financial and otherwise.

And, last but not least, to you and our many other moral supporters -- Thank you for five years of moral and financial support.  Project HALO would not have been possible without it.  Ad Astra!

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