Fort Sumner Scientific Balloon Facility explores the cosmos

high-altitude balloon
This high-altitude balloon, made from the same material as Ziploc sandwich bags, is inflated with helium. At altitude, the tear-drop shaped balloon fills out to look more like a pumpkin than an onion. Photo courtesy NASA Scientific Balloon Flight Facility
When we think of NASA, we usually picture images of massive rockets riding tails of fire from Cape Canaveral or spacecraft soaring past distant planets. But there’s more to NASA than the Cassini spacecraft diving through Saturn’s rings or the Curiosity rover trekking Mars’ ruddy plains.

In Fort Sumner, NASA maintains the Scientific Balloon Flight Facility, a sister site to its principal balloon launch location in Palestine, Texas. Fort Sumner was selected for a number of reasons but, perhaps most importantly, in the event of a catastrophic failure, the payload gondola, which could weigh thousands of pounds, would fall onto the grasslands of the Llano Estacado and not on population centers east of the Mississippi.

Besides, the Fort Sumner municipal airport was available. In the 1920s, Transcontinental Air Transport flew Ford Trimotor airplanes cross country. The airline helped establish airfields at the maximum range of its airplanes. Fort Sumner was just one of them. However, the airline’s plan for coast-to-coast flights collapsed during the Great Depression, and the airfield closed. It was reopened during World War II to train Army Air Corps pilots and, afterwards, became the town’s municipal airport, although there hasn’t ever been much air traffic.

NASA purchased the airfield in 1985, a legal necessity since NASA can’t build facilities on land the federal government doesn’t own. There it established the Scientific Balloon Flight Facility (NSBF). Besides the advantage of not dropping a ton and a half instrument package through somebody’s roof, the Fort Sumner location, at 4,000 feet elevation, places the launch point nearly a mile above sea level, and winds only restricted launch during spring time. The wide-open geographical area also makes it much easier to retrieve instruments at flight’s end.

In the 1990s, NASA constructed a high-bay building where payloads could be assembled and tested. The building also houses a weather station, flight control center, and a telemetry station to collect data. The Fort Sumner facility has grown in capability over the years and now includes a machine shop and still utilizes the old World War II hanger as a work area, storage area for support vehicles, and a hanger for NSBF aircraft during balloon flight operations.

A mobile launch vehicle was designed and fabricated at New Mexico State University. NSBF could find no commercial contractor who would undertake the project. The 50-ton crane with its 24-foot wheelbase, is used to support the payload up to 40 feet in the air, while the 600-foot-long, polyethylene balloon is filled with upwards of 18 million cubic feet of helium.

Two operational balloon launch campaigns are conducted at Fort Sumner each year — in the May-June and September — October. Most are called stratospheric turnaround events, meaning the payload is launched and tracked — either east or west — for a number of hours or days. Then the payload is parachuted to earth.

While Atlas 5 rockets, blasting away from Cape Canaveral, may be action-packed events and landing on asteroids and Mars may be exhilarating experiences, scientists at Fort Sumner have produced a large body of important work. Balloons have carried aloft the energetic X-ray imaging telescope, the Compton gamma ray telescope, and the ring-imaging Cherenkov counter. Don’t know what a Cherenkov counter does? It detects charged particles, like electrons, passing through extremely dry air or vacuum at speeds greater than the velocity of light in that medium. Whoa! That’s heavy.

Balloons launched at Fort Sumner have also studied cosmic microwave background radiation, cosmic rays to which astronauts might be exposed, and transiron galactic elements produced in the core of stars and spewed across space when they explode.

The Scientific Balloon Flight Facility may not be as glamorous as SpaceX’s Falcon rocket launching from Canaveral’s Pad 39A, from where Saturn V rockets carried astronauts to the moon, but the work — done without the hype — is just as important.

The men and women who work here exploring the cosmos can be just as proud as Fort Sumner Mayor Justin Ingram and Airport Manager Paul Gauna, both of whom told this story to me during my recent visit.