The balloons stand taller than the San Jacinto Monument when they are launched from the NASA facility in Palestine.
And by the time they come down somewhere in West Texas, Texans from as far away as Sulphur Springs in North Texas and Amarillo in the Panhandle will have taken part in the scientific research.
Since 1963, the National Scientific Balloon Facility in East Texas has helped launch more than 1,800 such balloons for research projects from around the world.
The kinds of research involved include cosmic ray studies, infrared astronomy as well as optical and ultra-violet astronomy, gamma and X-ray astronomy and atmospheric sciences.
The facility, located a few miles northwest of Palestine on U.S. 287, is sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and has 80 full-time employees. NASA contracts for supervisory administration and for the last five years New Mexico State University’s Physical Science Laboratory has had that contract.
The size of balloons launched at Palestine has gone up, so to speak, from an average volume of 2.8 million cubic feet (MCF) in 1964 to over 40 MFC in recent years.
The increase in size has allowed the payloads to increase from an average of 407 lbs. in 1964 to more than 6,000 lbs. today.
The duties attached to the project include not only the launch, however. Tracking and recovery of the balloon and its payload is also part of the job. That recovery can be as far away as California, but most often is within a 380-mile distance, somewhere in West Texas.
The balloons are assembled at only two manufacturers, one of whom is in Sulphur Springs, where workers handmake the polyethelene plastic “mega-lifts” by carefully placing tape along the hundreds of seams.
The plastic is “as thin as the covering on your dry cleaning,” says Edward Fritsch, supervisor of flight operations.
But by the time the gigantic balloons are finished they weigh about 5,000 lbs. and cost $100,000.
Helium from the gas-processing facility near Amarillo is trucked into Palestine to fill the balloons to about 10 percent capacity at ground level for the launch. As the balloon rises, the gas expands to fill the massive enclosure.
The balloons rise to 150,000 feet above the earth, about four times the usual level of commercial airline flights. There the scientific instruments that make up the payload — often weighing 6,000 lbs.— have as long as 40 hours to sample molecules or rays or magnetic fields, whatever the particular experiment is researching.
Fritsch says the resident time, or “time at float,” provides scientists with a chance of “tasting the atmosphere” as opposed to satellite operations from outer space that are more remote or a rocket launch that would provide only brief time at the higher levels.
Often the balloon experiments complement or clarify the accuracy of observations made from the orbiting satellites.
Palestine was chosen as the location of the national balloon center because it fulfilled three criteria required:
- it is in an area of low population density,
- but is in proximity to large urban areas, Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth. This allows for connecting transportation for visiting teams of scientists and for support from labor specialists,
- and, finally because of relatively light winds in the immediate area.
Following World War II, the Air Force, which had been the catalyst for balloon research, relied on the pool of scientists doing work at sites in the Southern Rockies.
Often the first small launches took place after driving out into the Great Plains to the east of Denver where strong winds became a problem.
Even today in East Texas, thunderstorms can make scheduling difficult, but once the balloons get above the surface weather of the earth things get more predictable.
From May to October the air currents above the highest thunderstorms, about 60,000 feet, flow from east to west. From October to May the currents are from west to east.
There is a time of two or three weeks at the turnaround that has very little directional flow. This period of time is used on occasion for experiments that require longer time in place.
For the last five or six years, the Palestine site has not launched balloons that would drift eastward because of the increased population density in that direction. For the winter launches, a back-up launch site has been established at Fort Sumner, N.M.
Other launch sites in Canada, Antarctica and Australia are part of the NASA program and each is used for different reasons: Canada because of magnetic field specifications, Antarctica for sun time, and Australia for southern hemisphere requirements.
Still, all the launches are coordinated from Palestine, and about a third of approximately 35 each year occur there.
Once the experiments are completed, the Palestine home base coordinates radio and computer communications to manage the descent. The balloon is detached and a parachute opens on the payload — instrumentation that can be worth $1 million — and the two components, balloon and instruments, begin a return to earth.
An airplane is used to help in the physical recovery. There is a “footprint of uncertainty” that must not include a population center.
This is the “most carefully managed part of the flight,” the flight official explains. Vertical control is through release of gas for descent or of glass pellets for ascent. But horizontal drift is at the mercy of the winds.
The chase plane radios to a crane-equipped truck that is within 50 miles of the anticipated landing site.
Often the scenario is played out on the front porch of a West Texas rancher who sees a big white truck driving up the road, with “NASA” marked on the side.
The “typical rancher is usually quite accommodating,” the flight official says. “People feel flattered to be involved in an experiment, for the most part.”
Sometimes local authorities such as sheriffs’ departments are consulted to help in determining whose property needs to be entered.
The finish of the Texas-centered research can provide for some local excitement. And, the NASA operations people acknowledge there have been more than a few reports of UFOs surrounding the flights.
— written by Robert Plocheck for the Texas Almanac 1996–1997.