HAB-1: Launch

By Josh Eiland · December 6, 2014

In preparing for launch day, we had a lot on the schedule. In order to make the balloon launch-ready, we needed to essentially prep everything except the launch site itself. So we put a small piece of PVC in the balloon’s neck, and zip-tied the tops of rope knots down on top of it. This enabled us to be able to attach safety lines to the balloon during inflation and to attach the payload train to the balloon’s neck before inflation began. We then attached lines from the payload to both loops, so that if one somehow came undone the other would salvage the connection.

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Using various online flight predictors, we concluded that we needed approximately 125 to 150 cubic feet of helium. Almost all prediction tools were projecting moderate winds eastward that would set our landing location to be near Greenville, South Carolina. This would have been great and all, but due to a helium mix-up (to be explained) this ended up just being the spot where the balloon ascended above the SPOT’s signal…

Next we prepared materials that we would need for launch. This included a pull scale to ensure that the balloon had enough lift (we aimed for 1.5 times our payload’s weight of lift for an ideal ascension rate). We also prepared a water gallon weighing 1.5 times our payload’s weight that we could attach to the balloon as a backup method, as the pull scales aren’t as reliable in windy conditions. After gathering all other necessary materials and tools for launch day adjustments and final preparations, we double-checked the balloon’s condition, tested the APRS radio setup, the GoPro, and the SPOT GPS. We then gathered all materials for the launch and prepared our stuff to set out early Saturday morning.

Gameday

Fast-forward to 5:15 am. We got up, tired but very excited. When we arrived to our first launch site, Red Top Mountain State Park, it appeared that the gates would not be opening until later, and we weren’t sure exactly when and didn’t want to waste any more time. So we headed over to our backup site- Sam Smith Park in Cartersville.

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Here we put down a tarp and unloaded all our gear. We hooked up the inflation tube to the helium tank and laid out the payload. We began to inflate the balloon while inspecting all parts, and regulating the balloon’s lift while checking for any tears and holes.

Unfortunately, a little over halfway towards our desired lift, we realized that we were running out of helium, and sure enough, shortly after we ran out completely. We believe that this was a mix of us underestimating exactly how much helium we needed, and potentially also a lower amount of helium in the tank than was advertised or expected when it was purchased.

Since we had to think quick, we cut off the entire lunchbox payload. This sounds drastic, but really all that was inside was the radio (along with foam insulation and hand warmers), which at that point was a secondary GPS source to the SPOT, as we weren’t entirely sure of its long-distance reliability yet. By cutting out this section, we were able to trim the necessary weight, and shortly thereafter we launched, with Makers Club members shooting photos and my Phantom 2 Vision + grabbing some aerial footage. The balloon ascended and we had done it. Our first high-altitude had successfully launched and spiraled up out of view. After a brief celebration, we hit the road, the exciting start of a long but rewarding day.

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