Onlookers Narrowly Avoid NASA Balloon Crash

Scientists at NASA are stoic, Berkeley scientists are stunned and endangered onlookers express relief after a weather balloon destined for the edge of space crashed shortly after takeoff, damaging vehicles but injuring no one.

After announcing a delay in the final launch of the space shuttle program earlier this week, NASA suffered another setback when a giant scientific weather balloon, scheduled to fly high in the earth's atmosphere and laden with expensive technological equipment, crashed during an attempted launch in Australia. An Associated Press video shows the craft barreling across the desert, smashing into the parked cars of onlookers, some who narrowly escaped injury.
Australian news channel ABC interviewed eyewitness Betty Davies, who said she and her husband were sitting in a car next to one smashed by the gondola portion of the craft. "I think if it hadn't have been for the other gentleman's car being there we'd have been somewhere else by now," she said. "We were expecting to be wiped out."
A status report released by NASA confirmed that upon release, the balloon's payload hit the ground and was dragged approximately 150 yards before hitting a fence and sports utility vehicle. A mishap investigation board is being convened. The balloon was attempting to launch the Nuclear Compton Telescope, or NCT, a $2 million gamma-ray telescope from the University of California, in Berkeley. The payload is designed to study astrophysical sources of nuclear line emission with high spectral and spatial resolution.
"Damage to the NCT payload, project assets and area surroundings are currently being assessed," the space agency announced. The Compton imaging serves three purposes: imaging the sky, measuring polarization and very effectively reducing background. NCT's guiding principle is that high efficiency and excellent background reduction are critical for advances in soft gamma-ray sensitivity. It employs a novel Compton telescope design, utilizing twelve 3D imaging, high spectral resolution germanium detectors (GeDs), enclosed on the sides and bottom, and with an overall field-of-view (FOV) of 25 percent of the sky, according to a Berkley mission statement.
An undergraduate student of the NCT project, Eric Bellm, posted his thoughts on the crash on his blog Dispatches from the Field. The blog has since been made private, but some statements are available on cached pages. "It's hard to find words to describe what just happened. We had a complete launch failure and abort, and much of the gondola and its systems were destroyed," he wrote. "Thankfully no one was hurt. A full accounting will have to wait-for now we're just trying to pick up the pieces."
A day following the incident, NASA announced it would provide live coverage of the May 6 launch of the Pad Abort 1 flight test. Pad Abort 1 will be the first fully integrated test of the launch abort system being developed for the Orion crew vehicle. The information gathered through the test will be used to design and develop future systems that provide a safe escape for crews in the event of an emergency.