Accident Damaged Gamma-Ray Telescope Intended For High-Altitude
A NASA panel that investigated the unsuccessful April 28 launch
of a scientific balloon from Alice Springs, Australia, has released
NASA was attempting to launch the balloon carrying a gamma-ray
telescope belonging to the University of California at Berkeley.
The Nuclear Compton Telescope, which was partially destroyed in the
accident, was designed to look for distant galaxies from a vantage
point high in Earth's upper atmosphere.
The scientific payload inadvertently separated from a mobile
crane being used for the launch, and it was dragged approximately
150 yards by the airborne balloon. Spectators narrowly escaped
injury when the payload hit an airport fence and a car. NASA's
Mishap Investigation Board determined weather conditions were
acceptable for launch, and there were no technical problems with
the vehicle or the payload.
The board was led by Michael L. Weiss of NASA's Goddard Space
Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The board's report listed 25
proximate, intermediate and root causes related to insufficient
risk analysis, contingency planning, personnel training, technical
knowledge, government oversight and public safety
"There is no question in our minds that balloon launches are
fragile processes," Weiss said. "The mishap board reviewed a large
volume of information about the accident and conducted numerous
interviews with eyewitnesses. But in the course of our
investigation, we found surprisingly few documented procedures for
balloon launches. No one considered the launch phase to be a
The purpose of the investigation was to discover what caused the
mishap and provide recommendations to help prevent similar future
mishaps. The board listed 44 recommendations regarding the need for
better communication; more robust range and ground safety plans and
procedures; and better understanding of potentially unsafe
conditions that can lead to accidents.
NASA Image From Accident report
Immediately after the accident in Australia, launch operations
at all of NASA's balloon sites were suspended. NASA's Balloon
Program Office will resume launches once it has implemented and
verified new procedures to safeguard launch crews and the public.
"We have learned a lot from this incident, and we'll have a better
balloon program because of it," said Rob Strain, Goddard Space
Flight Center director.
The Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas,
conducts balloon launches for NASA under contract to the Balloon
Program Office. The program office is based at NASA's Wallops
Flight Facility in Virginia, which is managed by Goddard.