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 Tim Pickens, HALO Rocket Systems Lead, which was published in the July-August 1998 issue of the Southeastern Space Supporter, newsletter of HAL5.

My HALO SL-2 Experiences

Greg had gotten the final word from NASA and it didn’t look good, “Launch is imminent on this date, June 20, or there will be no launch!”  I didn’t want to hear this, nor did any one else.  I began to run through a mental check list and decided that at our current pace, we might be ready in 4 months but not one!

The last thing that I wanted to see is our all-volunteer team get in a hurry and not have the opportunity to do thorough checkouts and a full-up system integration.  Without enough time, we would all really have a tense month and we could all end up looking real amateur instead of just amateur.

A Long “To Do” List

There was so much to do.  The carbon tank had not been finished yet, nor any of the upper sections which housed the parachutes, electronics, etc.  There was no ground support equipment to manage the rocket or the balloon.  I had a lot of ideas of how to do these things, but they were not on paper.

There was no time to discuss these ideas with the other team members.  I did not like the idea of have the monkey on my back not only for responsibility reasons, but also because the other team members needed to know what was going on in case I got sick.  There was no time to produce formal procedures for balloon inflation, rigging, nitrous filling of the rocket, etc.  It was everything that we could do to get the rocket built.

The Hectic Month Before Launch

Along the way there were many unexpected set backs.  For instance, we built a heater from a piece of stove pipe that we were going to cure our carbon fiber tan in.  It looked nice but had about a 100 degree thermal gradient from one end to the other.  We manage to use it but it was not an ideal environment for our curing cycle.  We also attempted to strengthen our wooden fins with pre-impregnated Kevlar.  They would have to undergo a vacuum bagging process and then be placed into the oven at approximately 350 deg.  They did not survive the environment without becoming warped.  We had to scrap them and purchase some carbon fins from HARC, which was also in the process of building a large hybrid.

Another biggie was the need to build a large launch cradle to both elevate the rocket several feet above the barge deck and support the weight of the vehicle during fill.  This project ended up taking lots of our time to build.  The rocket would not get to see a final fit check with this until we were on the barge the morning of the launch.

This cradle was built in order to allow a totally remote nitrous fill as well as a hands off balloon launch.  These were just a few of the problems we experienced those last four months and I think you can get the jest of what I am saying.  It was insane!

At the NASA Michoud Facility

We are now arriving in Michoud and boy was the security tight.  No one would leave or go without a NASA escort.  We would stay in our immediate area, go no where and talk to no one.  Welcome to boot camp.

We ended up spending the first night on a nice old boat that was used to carry the external tanks from the space shuttle.  It was built in the 60’s and named Orion.  It was a real cool piece of floating history because it also carried the first stages on the Saturn V moon rockets.  It was old but very nice and could accommodate a crew of over 12.

We all spent most of the night working on wiring harnesses and electronics while we had a nice air conditioned room, which in our case was the kitchen (galley for you boat people).

Aboard the Barge Pearl River

Fate would not allow the comforts of home to last.  We were ask to load up on another older boat called the Pearl River after our one night stay on the Orion.  It was kinda like being fed your last meal before you were instructed to walk the plank.  This boat could sleep only four persons with air conditioning in the bunk room.  It was absolutely miserable anywhere else on the barge.  I could not believe the humidity level that accompanied the heat.

We would set sail in just a few hours and it was time to take my motion sickness medicine.  I would be a basket case with out it.  I was really getting sick and worried because the helium fill manifold that Raven had loaned us was in route and presumably lost in receiving somewhere in lots of red tape.  It did finally get located just hours before we shoved off.  It was very stressful, wondering had I covered all bases and did we have everything we needed for this mission.  Unlike the other balloon flights, there was no turning back or going to the store on this mission.

The tug arrived early that morning and connected to our barge.  It was time to shove off and get it over with one way or another.  I was determined to get that rocket off that barge one way or another because I was sick of looking at it after the last month of hell!  We all were ready to get this monkey off our back so we could get on with our lives.  This project had really consumed all of us for many months and we wanted to see it go if we had to push it off the boat.

It was time to go now and the barge began to move.  I really hated the idea of going out with no chance of getting off this boat.  It seemed so confined and permanent.  I am not the adventurous type.  My head was already swimming and we were only in the river at this point.  It would be 12 hours of this calmness and then the real deal would begin to rock the boat.

During this part of the cruise, it was a good time to help the electronics guys and put stuff together.  It would be a long night because the next morning we would have to launch the balloon.  I was really spacing out and panicking about everything.  I was feeling sick and it was time to pass along the master plan to the other guys because I was going down.  There were a lot of details of the operation that never made it to paper, so I talked to key people on the team who could take the ball and run with it.

The Squall Line Attacks!

I would end up spending a lot of my time in the crew quarters sleeping, which is the only refuge I had from the swaying barge.  I would awakened by a beating sound under the hull which turned out to be the waves bashing the barge.  I jumped up and ran out side to see lightning all around us and we were running around trying to miss the storms.  I was really getting nervous because all our stuff was out on deck.

Gail force winds began to cross the deck and beat our tent/tarp, which was the only refuge from the beating sun during the day.  Several of us ran out on deck with our life vests on as the boat swayed and wind blew stuff around on the deck.  It was really scary out there in the middle of the night with the water spraying over the sides of the barge.  We were running around like crazy trying to cover and secure anything outside.  The winds were over 35 knots at this time and the captain told us to come in and not return to the deck.  The winds picked up even more as we watched the storm approaching.

It was pointed out that our motor and fin box were not tied down.  I immediately put on a life vest as did others and committed mutiny by running out there during the high winds to save our rocket and mission.  We weren’t getting paid by NASA to do this mission, so we would still have a job tomorrow.

It looked as if tomorrow’s launch would have to be scrubbed because of this storm.  I was really mental at this point.  I really enjoy designing, planning, coordinating, and building; but I hate launches, especially balloon launches.

The Morning After

It finally calmed down after the storm and turned out to be perfect weather for a launch.  But there was only one problem:  our systems were not fitted and ready to fly.  When we finally got the electronics payload in hand, we still needed another 2-3 hours of final assembly.  During this assembly nightmare, the balloon team began to fill the balloon.

We were having all sorts of problems with orientation of connectors, hoses, and antenna on the rocket relative to the launch cradle.  This was really going to be a crazy launch being hands off.  There were too many untested systems.  We needed 5-6 persons on the rocket but could not produce them because the balloon team was having their problems and needed lots of help.  It was nuts in the hot sun.  Many of the guys that were holding the balloon down were about to pass out in the 95 degree heat.  I was playing water boy and dumping water on our teams heads to cool them down.  We were having to rotate positions in order to keep from passing out in the heat.  It was the most miserable I had ever been in my life.  I just wanted it to end.

The nitrous was put into the rocket remotely and the umbilical was finally disconnected.  The balloon was directly over head, but no one could take pictures of it because there was not a sole on that barge including the captain that was not tied up.  Greg was yelling about the FAA window closing and were freaking with the final wiring of the pyro cutters and igniters.

It was finally time to speed the barge up so the balloon would lean toward the back of the boat and, when released, would pull the rocket off the back of the barge as it ascended -- or at least that’s the way it worked on paper.  The signal to speed the boat up was given and the barge began to respond.  The balloon leaned back and the release rope was severed as planned.  The balloon didn’t go toward the back of the boat.  It was going straight up.  It must have been only a local gust which was giving us the false sense that the barge speed was increasing.

The balloon ascended straight up and dragged our rocket over the front of the cradle and finally releasing it, but the gondola video package hung up on the cradle.  It stretched out the ropes and finally released them which sling shot the rocket up and off the hook which it was secured by.  The rocket was free of the balloon and falling back to the deck.  I ran down into the hull of the barge and never came out again.  I did find out through others that all was OK and no one was hurt.  I was sick about the whole situation.  I went back too sleep so I could escape from everything.


When I awoke 6 hours later, the good team that we have had already cleaned up the mess and all was packed up.  We were going home.  It was indeed the best part of the trip.  I was no longer sick and was relieved.  I was ready to go home and see my wife and daughter and forget rockets forever (no such luck there).

We did not get to make history this time but we gave it all we had.  It was the most interesting adventure I have ever been apart of.  I think its time for new blood to pick up the ball and run with it.  The hardware is in Ronnie’s garage.

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