Monday, October 10, 2016

PIPER Mission Day 2 and 3

(Currently they are hoping to launch on Tuesday around 9:30 am EST or Friday. If it doesn't work either of those days they are going to pack it up and head back to Goddard. Think happy weather thoughts for the PIPER team.)

Tuesday was another busy pre-launch day with the team scrambling to troubleshoot some problems that popped up in the middle of the night and get the payload ready to go for the Flight Readiness Review and a possibly Wednesday launch.

I did my best to become one with the hangar and not get in the way. Jimmy kept apologizing for being off working but I was doing my own thing. It was neat to be working on my other NASA projects at NASA.

 Plus, it was like live hangar cam!

Some people watch their friends play sports...I watch Jimmy engineer things. It's all about the same.

I've spoken to a few people about the trip since I have returned and it's hard to impress upon folks how novel this whole set up is to someone doing small scale ballooning. CSBF has a huge team of people who take care of many different aspects of the launch from weather to rigging. They make sure that the launch is safe and efficient. They have planes to follow the payload and recover using giant trucks.

I have to hand it to Doug Knight, the brains behind the High Altitude Balloon challenge. He did a fantastic job with the set up of that event. Sure the Flight Readiness Review, check in and late night payload reconstruction bender were all very stressful at the time but I think that it did the best possible job of mimicking a real launch experience on a smaller scale. I saw a lot of parallels here.

One thing that I did learn from this experience with NASA and that I am hoping to impress on all of my students, is the importance of breaks. These folks were working full tilt around the clock, don't get me wrong, but if you're working with your brain, heavy machinery and 12 ft tall ladders you don't want to get too loopy. It can be tempting to push through one "quick thing to finish up." We all do it from time to time. In some cases a short break can keep you safe, recharge your brain and actually lessen the net time it takes to complete a project. Fatigue can lead to careless mistakes and accidents and that is just going to eat up more precious time. I was really impressed when the team left to get milkshakes. I hope my students can learn from this.

I took a break to decompress and eat a peanut butter sandwich at the hotel and saw this gorgeous car!

When I returned to check on Jimmy it had gotten dark and another beautiful moon was visible over the hangar. 

He was still working very hard to complete the sunshield. It proved to be a greater design challenge than we initially suspected. Another thing that I learned, or at least was reminded of, during this trip is that at the end of the day most of science and engineering is just winging it. You are trying to do something no one has done before so you have to make it up as you go along. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. You can't major in balloon engineering. (Yet.)

We had a tarantula visit. It was so unexpected to see one in real life and not in a tank that I wasn't scared of it. I kept my distance but I enjoyed following it around and watching it pace across the hangar. Watch out bunnies!

Is it weird to say that I miss the machine shop? 

Something about the little details on these machines just makes my skirt fly up. 

I told Jimmy I had business in the machine shop and snuck off to take this photo. I have a feeling I'm going to get a lot of mileage out of it. 

I'm not sure when we left the base but I know that everyone was still furiously working when we did in anticipation of a 3:30 am roll out. We had the luxury of arriving around 5 am when everything was all set up.

 My silver space tubes looks so majestic in the flood lights!

Alas, the fickle weather caused the folks who run the base to wait an hour to see if the wind would settle down in time for an optimal launch. Unfortunately they decided around 6 am to scrub for the day in hopes of better weather later on in the week. 

We were disappointed. Sure. But we knew going in that we might not be lucky enough to see the launch in person and honestly, the entire experience was a million times more amazing than I had anticipated even without the grand finale. 

The PIPER team was exhausted and certainly not thrilled to hear that they would be spending even more time away from home but they also quickly jumped to the silver lining that they would have more time to perfect all of their systems and fly the payload they hoped to fly and not the most field expedient version. They took the time to secure the payload and then went off to take a much deserved rest but I'm sure that most of them were back at their posts in a few hours. 

We were a little sad to leave the base and start the 12 hour journey back to NC but we left with high hopes and big ideas. 

The 2.5 hour drive to the airport was not without its own share of excitement...including but not limited to when Jimmy set his cheese balls free.

These are New Mexican cheese balls. They will never be happy in the more humid climes of North Carolina. If you love something set it free, Jimmer. (Actually, no. That hardly ever works out. Maybe you have a 50/50 shot with inanimate food type objects but don't try this with your pets.)

Goodbye noble cheeselike orbs. Thank you for your service. We'll never forget you.


So in conclusion, because this weird snack food off ramp can't possibly serve as a conclusion....

Thank you to everyone who supported us on this adventure. I can't wait to share what I've learned with my students and the rest of the Unacceptable Risks.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

PIPER Mission Visit Day 1

Before I get too far gone describing Julie and Jimmy’s excellent adventure I would like to thank NASA NC Space Grant and Durham Technical Community College for supporting us and footing the substantial bill for our transit to New Mexico. I hope that we can make what we have learned be of service to these two agencies.

I’m going to split this into multiple posts so as not to overwhelm my reader(s) with all of the cool stuff that we did in New Mexico.

We got into Lubbock, TX very late on Sunday night and went to the grocery store for supplies because many food options are closed on Mondays in Fort Sumner. We’d been traveling for most of the day, and still had a 2.5 hr drive through vast emptiness in front of us, so we didn’t make the best food choices at the store. Por ejemplo: we bought a watermelon and a pumpkin…it seemed like a good idea at the time. 

I’ve joked that Super 8 was sick of me before I even arrived and perhaps they were, because they put me in the worst room in the whole place, right across from Schrödinger’s lobby which housed a door that managed to be paradoxically a door and a dying fire alarm. (Also, free straws!)

Monday morning was the roll out, a time to test and weigh PIPER, and what was likely to be the main event for our trip. Cell service, email and texting were not reliable in Fort Sumner so we’d been given the marching orders to show up around 6AM for the show, but we kept checking the various cameras at the base and not seeing any activity. Jimmy offered to run to the base (5 minutes away) while I finished “breakfast” and to swing back by the hotel to scoop me up if the action was starting.
When he came right back to get me he kept talking about the hundreds of bunnies that he saw on his way out…and I didn’t realize he wasn’t kidding. I love NASA. I love bunnies. NASA + HUNDREDS OF BUNNIES= IS IT MY BIRTHDAY ALREADY?!

I should never have doubted him. That place was swarming with rabbits. Big 'uns. Small 'uns. And one unfortunate, smashed one.

CSBF is plopped in the middle of a flat and desolate area. It is essentially a small air field with a few hangars dotting the tarmac. In the distance you can see some mesas, few trees and a line of patient windmills.

Paul met up with us right away and gave us a quick tour before the roll out began in earnest. I had not seen PIPER since the summer and I was impressed by all of the extra electronics and layers that had been tacked onto the outside.

One of the things that impressed me the most was the scale of everything. Our payload is the size of a small Styrofoam cooler…because it is a small Styrofoam cooler. You can see how large PIPER is and it feels even more substantial in person. Our rigging is made out of light Dacron kite string. Theirs is, in places, made out of braided steel. Our chute is the size of a hand towel. Theirs is the size of a warehouse. Our balloon is, impressively, about six to eight feet tall. Their balloon is the size of two football fields.

During the roll out we were treated to a spectacular sunrise followed by a full rainbow with some bonus rainbows! Rainbows indicate…rain…and some sprinkles forced the payload into the shelter of the hangar for a bit. Before that PIPER was rigged, ballast was tested and the entire unit was weighed using a massive truck.

Around this time my best friend found me on the online cameras and that added a whole other layer of surrealness to an already dreamlike event.

Before I started HAB this time last year I had no idea that high altitude ballooning was a thing. Before Jimmy started his internship I didn’t know that NASA was using high altitude ballooning for science. Before we visited CSBF I did not realize that high altitude ballooning was serious business. Scientists and engineers from all over the country are working on these experiments and launching them from a sprinkling of bases, like CSBF, that are scattered worldwide. Walking through these workshops and seeing dedicated, high tech, HAB specific technology was eye opening for me.
You might recall my confusion at being invited on this trip at all. Now that it’s in the books I suspect that Paul invited me for two reasons:

1.       I ask a lot of questions.
2.       Entertainment value.

Every time I would (temporarily) run out of questions Paul would prod me with, “What else?” and I was always surprised to have yet another question.

(I made Jimmy pose like this for his senior pictures.)

After the roll out was complete, we took a break to eat our weird lunch and then came back to base for the weather briefing. It’s hard to pick a favorite part of the trip, so I won’t, but the weather briefing was brilliant. First of all, it was held in the hangar that I had been watching online for a week and a half. I had a ridiculous rush of fan-girl thrill as we crossed across the floor.  The meeting took place in an average conference room where everyone gathered to hear the odds of the next possible “show day” and we went over the forecasted wind and pressure systems for the next few days. We were cautiously optimistic that Wednesday morning would be a good time for a launch, with Saturday as a possible backup. The entire meeting took less than fifteen minutes. If you know me in real life you know how much this thrilled me.

After the weather briefing, Paul put Jimmy to work making a sunshield. I got the fantastically satisfying job of peeling the plastic coating off of some sheet steel. Peeling plastic + NASA + bunnies…dang…I could die now and my life would be complete.


After that was done, Paul said, “Hey we have part of the rigging that is orange and we need it to be shiny. Fix it.” I got set up with a huge roll of mylar, mylar tape, scissors and some giant space bungees. My first attack of metalizing the space tubes went poorly. I was being chintzy with material. I’m used to my low budget/ weight miser space program. After a quick check in with Paul I started again and did it the “Julie Way.” (Precision but not accuracy.) I cut large swaths of mylar, taped the seams, reinforced the mylar with tape bands and made tape on tape connections whenever I could. I ended up with a flexible design that made me either want a baked potato or a burrito for dinner. (I had neither. I don’t recall what I did eat only that it was in the middle of the night.)

Jimmy was earnestly working on his sunshield and I had to stop my MUCH MORE IMPORTANT WORK to begrudgingly assist him in the machine shop. (Just kidding. I loved it.) The machine shop housed wonderful 1960’s work horse tools, a mishmash of materials organized in apparent disarray, and charming balloon specific notes and doodads. I really wished that my dad could see it.

Jimmy and I had a crash course in bending metal and then realized that we were getting slap happy and decided to call it a day. As we left the hangar we had to stop and pull the car over to gawk at the moon.