9 thoughts on “When Big Science Goes Bad: NASA Balloon Crash in OZ

  1. I’ve been at many balloon launchings. These look like a bunch of clueless amateurs. You don’t launch it from a stationary bloody crane. You have the payload on the back of a truck downwind from the actual balloon and when the balloon is released you drive down-wind until the balloon is steady vertically above the payload; then you release the payload. At this point the balloon and payload are stationary in the airmass and go straight up.

    At least, that’s the way we did it forty years ago at Mildura.

  2. I don’t know, Keith. What you say makes sense, but these are the super-duper balloon expert people here. Maybe they have new methods.

    And maybe soon, they’ll have even NEWER methods! (Or, older methods, as the case may be.)

  3. Keith, the difference is that as balloon enthusiasts, you respected the difficulties of launching a balloon.

    The project managers must have had tunnel vision trained on the very sophisticated science instruments, while ignoring the failure modes of “low-tech” balloon launches. Our concept of status twist the way we judge difficulties. A good analogy wuld be the strategists giving priority to high-tech weapons systems for the Iraq war, while ignoring the need for a lot of “simple” infantrymen.

  4. I agree the footage sure makes the crew look like rank amateurs, but I disagree with Keith about payloads always being launched from the back of a truck. These large launches are pretty impressive and not too common, so I’d bet the internet has photos of a lot of launches from around the planet. I do seriously doubt that the crew have a valid excuse for this cockup though. For such a large payload it looks like they’re not even using simple precautions which other teams use for much smaller (500-800kg) payloads.

  5. @Cain: Thanks for the link – that’s funny. Alice Springs is still a hole in the ground so some things don’t change much; the locals tell me part of the problem is that tourist fly to Ayers Rock rather than driving there so hardly anyone stops by Alice Springs (except for scientists like me). One of my favorite towns along the way was a place called “Glendambo”; a small sign outside the town read:

    Welcome to Glendambo
    Blowflies: 2,000,000
    Sheep: 20,000
    Humans: 200

    The opal mining town of Coober Pedy was pretty interesting too – or not interesting as the case may be. It looked like a moonscape.

  6. The kind of failure you see in the video it’s not uncommon to history of scientific ballooning.

    Nevertheless in this case I think that many people is discovering for the first time what scientific ballooning is nowadays thanks to the widespreading of that quite spectacular and sad mishap.

    I run an amateur website devoted to this field which has become a meeting point for many people once involved in this activity. Consulting with some of them they signaled his own opinions on the mishap:

    Expert #1: “…First, it appears that the winds were too strong at mid- and upper-levels on the balloon and flight train. Second, the alignment of the crane appears to be at least ninety degrees off the wind direction and turning more away from the wind. This compounded the wind speed problem. Third, the balloon apparently had not reached equilibrium nor had it achieved lift. But had they not released it from the crane when they did, it would have turned the crane over on its side. That is apparent from the pendulum arch the payload took as it came off the crane and impacted the ground…”

    Expert #2: “…In order for a balloon to lift a very heavy payload to the stratosphere, it requires a very large balloon with a lot of helium. The large amount of helium causes the balloon to rise very quickly when it is released. Any change in the wind causes big problems for the crew to align the launch vehicle correctly before the balloon starts to pull on the payload. It is apparent that the balloon got in front of the payload before the launch vehicle could get in the correct alignment for a good launch. The balloon apparently tore the payload off of the launch vehicle. With the balloon ahead of the payload, the payload did a pendulum motion hitting the ground and dragging before the parachute could be released from the balloon by command…”

    Also take in account that a big crane as the used there is not as handy as the launch vehicles used in other launch bases.

    Finally KEITH HARWOOD ¿can you contact me privately?

    Thank you!

  7. I wonder why no one monitors the low altitude local conditions with an instrument string on a tethered balloon. Perhaps they should do so in the future (it’ll help get facts on what goes wrong with a launch). Hey, I’ll even build and sell them the instrument string … maybe … it looks like I’ll be hellishly busy with other work in the next few months though.

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