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.

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