Text Size

Engineers Branch Out at Rocket University
Engineers work with a payloadImage above: Norman Peters, left, and Elkin Norena prepare the payload before it is sent aloft on a high-altitude balloon. Photo credit: Rocket University
› Larger image

Teams release balloon mission Image above: A team releases a high-altitude balloon March 15 to begin the mission Rocket University engineers designed and built. Photo credit: Rocket University
› Larger image

Teams pull the payload from the ocean Image above: Technicians pull in the six-pound payload box from the ocean after it parachuted back to Earth following a ride to 115,000 feet on a balloon. Photo credit: Rocket University
› Larger image

There was a launch March 15 that didn't make the news, but nonetheless set an accomplishment for engineers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The launch had everything one might expect: An open area, an expected course, antennas that could pick up signals and video from the craft as it soared into the sky, and a recovery team. The operation was even led by aerospace engineers.

But this was no rocket. Instead, it was a large balloon designed to climb high into the stratosphere carrying a 6-pound box of instruments and three cameras, plus a parachute and associated equipment.

That it was being launched by engineers accustomed to dealing with space shuttles was the point of the exercise: pushing accomplished specialists out of their comfort zones. By venturing into new areas, they will pick up new technological tips along the way that are expected to pay off for future NASA missions.

The mission was a project for the new "Rocket University," a program of courses, workshops, labs and projects offered to engineering and research pros of all stripes to keep their skills fresh and broaden their experiences. About 20 Rocket University students took part in the balloon launch.

"It's an opportunity for not just Kennedy, but engineers at other centers to take courses and participate in labs and actually build payloads and in some cases build rockets to stay up to speed on the technology, and to learn some really valuable skills," said Nicole Dawkins, project manager for the balloon mission. "What we're encouraging is, for instance, an avionics person to go off and work as a project manager."

The work, done in cooperation with University of Central Florida professors, is much deeper than hobbyist-level interest and has to stick to proven management processes, said Norman Peters, a NASA systems engineer. UCF's Dr. Larry Chew worked with the balloon project team.

"It's advancing our ability to support customer needs, when it comes down to it," Peters said. "We're trying to enhance skills."

Working with high-altitude balloons is one area the program deals with. Others include building rockets with payloads, unmanned aerial vehicles and other aerospace specialties. Together, they cover the spectrum from low-speed to high-speed, high-altitude flight.

The 8-foot-diameter balloon the team flew, for example, soared to 115,000 feet, a region considered near-space that offers lots of opportunities for research. It was also extremely inexpensive and the payload was assembled by the university participants using off-the-shelf parts in the team members' down times.

The launch pad was a baseball field in Oviedo, Fla., about 40 miles inland from Kennedy. Liftoff came at about 10:40 a.m. and the balloon was tracked with GPS instruments riding with it, monitored by six teams spread out along the expected path. As it climbed, it drifted east with the wind and sent back video of the ground, sky and horizon as it went along.

"We saw the burst live (from the on-board camera)," said Steve Pancoast, who worked with the balloon's avionics. "Everything worked like we expected except for some (signal) interference."

It climbed higher and higher every minute until the pressure inside was too much and it burst. That was when the payload, a Styrofoam box holding the flight computer, cameras and other gear, fell back to Earth, deploying a parachute along the way and splashing down in the ocean about six miles offshore.

Preparing the box, about the size of a small cooler, to land in the water or on land was just one of the steps they took during the two months from start to launch. They also had to build a flight computer and set of instruments that would work in the cold air of the stratosphere and handle the speed changes of a parachute opening.

"We were combining known technologies to make a hybrid," said Elkin Norena, who worked on the power source that operated the cameras and trackers during the flight and for a time after landing so the balloon wouldn't be lost. "We had to fit our requirements into what we could get off the shelf."

"I think off-the-shelf items require a lot more research for those of us who are used to having a part handed to us that was custom-made for a certain task," Dawkins said.

The two-month deadline to build the payload and launch the balloon provided a much more rapid schedule to the team.

"My experience has been on long-term projects," Peters said. "You're working ground support projects that can take years to come up."

Their work is not over. They just kicked off another effort that will see them drop an aeroshell from a much larger balloon launched from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The experiment calls for more instrumentation and equipment to test the design, a challenge the group is excited about.

It may also open another research avenue for scientists outside the typical NASA realm, Dawkins said.

The group came away from the balloon mission energized, they said, and eager to start the more-advanced mission.

"I had a ball doing this," Peters said. "Everyone worked together very well."

"I think we've all launched many shuttles, which is probably the highlight of our careers," Dawkins said. "I would say this is the probably the most I've learned and the most fun I've had since the shuttle program ended."

Steven Siceloff
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center