This object has been in my possession for almost 40 years. And the memory that it stirs is of a balloon. A Mylar helium balloon. You might say that they didn’t have Mylar balloons back when I was a kid. But NASA did, much like the one in this recent news report.
So, what is this object?
These tiny iron black balls on a penny on a magnet are a pinch from this little plastic vial, into which I put the powder scooped up from a test of the ballast release mechanism of the payload from a NASA Cosmic Ray balloon mission to which my father took me in 1971.
I think my mother needed me out of her hair while dealing with my younger sibling during summer vacation. So at the age of 10 I flew up to Sioux Falls with my pop to see what I’d always heard called “a balloon flight.” I hoped to see this magnificent 300 foot diameter balloon, and maybe get to see what it was my father actually did on his summer travels for NASA. My father was involved in many such flights. He took a great picture of the inflating balloon that I show on his memorial pages, here.
I had a small, plastic camera with Instamatic film that 1971 summer, so I took several shots, like the payload held by the launch crane for testing. The payload is jacketed in 8″ of Styrofoam coated in orange plastic to make it easy to find when it comes down somewhere in Canada. The ballast container is the white thing below the Cosmic Ray detector housing. The half ton of ballast is released in controlled amounts by magnets. That’s why it consists of tiny iron balls.
Prior to launch, they laid out a long canvas runner to protect the huge and delicate balloon envelope. You can see the balloon as a lighter strip on the canvas in this shot of them arming the balloon release “cannon”. The cannon is a simple gunpowder-powered rope cutter that is triggered by radio when they want the package to come down.
They learned the hard way to also have a cannon to separate the parachute from the payload once it lands. My father once brought me a piece of the shattered guidance system from a payload that had been dragged by its parachute many miles across woods and fields, fences and rocks.
Anyway, you can see the twilight of dusk. This is typically the time of quiet air. Keep in mind that this was the era just before weather satellites and Doppler radar. Shortly after this last picture was taken, the ground crew got a frantic call from the control tower. A storm was on its way!
My father grabbed me and put me in the front seat of a truck, and ran out to help disarm the cannons, separate the “stages”, and to roll up the balloon and parachute. They had just hoisted the balloon back into its truck when the rain came, fierce and horizontal. A bearded grad student (most men still didn’t wear beards in 1971) followed my father into the truck, so I was against the door with pop on the hump. The grad student repeatedly yelled with apparent glee, or maybe relief, “We almost got screwed!”
I was moderately shocked at his language. But his sentiment was understandable. I knew the word as an expletive, but was yet innocent of its biological meaning. Had they been a half hour farther along, they would have (at best) lost the $100,000 balloon with nothing to show for it. At worst, it could have destroyed the even more expensive Cerenkov counters and data recording equipment. It was very exciting.
The next day, I was taken to the airport and sent home, traveling alone on a 727. My father remained for another week, to try again.