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Eric Christian's Field Journal
from the 2003 Campaign
Eric is now back home.
Tuesday, February 18, 2003: Homeward bound
After a morning walking around Sydney some more (from "The Rocks" under the Sydney bridge to Darling Harbour) I head to the airport. 29 hours later (but still on the 18th because of the International Dateline), after stops in LA and Denver, I finally arrive home. I'm exhausted, but it feels really good to be home. Now it's up to the small NIGHTGLOW team left in Australia to get us a successful launch.
Monday, February 17, 2003: A tour of Sydney harbor
Woke up at 6 a.m. and walked around the botanical gardens in the early morning. I got some nice photos of sulphur-crested cockatoos and rainbow lorikeets (see the wildlife webpage). Then down to the docks to take a boat into the bay.
Sunday, February 16, 2003: On my way to Sydney
I find I can take the Alice Springs non-stop flight to Sydney today, although I can't fly back to the States until Tuesday. Spending an extra day in Sydney sounds much better than staying here with no chance of a launch. Plus, I don't have to take the longer plane route through Melbourne. So after packing quickly in the morning, I leave at about noon. I get into Sydney about 4 p.m. local time, but by the time I get my luggage and a bus to my hotel, it is 6 p.m. My hotel is really close to the Sydney Opera House and, because it is mid-summer, and it stays light, I have some time to walk around. I have a quick bite to eat, and then head out into the Sydney Botanical Gardens, which is just across the street from my hotel. The flying foxes (large fruit bats) are just starting to stir. Most of them are still hanging upside down from the trees. I take a couple of pictures (see my wildlife webpage) and then head around the point to the opera house.
Saturday, February 15, 2003: The weather is not looking good
The weather briefing this morning says that we're not likely to get a launch within the next week or so. This is not good news. I've got a meeting that I should attend that starts Wednesday the 19th back in Washington DC. After much agonizing (I hate coming all the way down here and not sticking around to help with the launch), I decide to head back to the states on the 18th. The only problem is that I have to get to Sydney, Australia on the 17th and the only flights that have seats take me to Melbourne first and then to Sydney. That turns a 3 hour trip into a 7 hour trip.
Friday, February 14, 2003: Serpentine Gorge and Glen Helen
Thursday, February 13, 2003: A long night
After a mostly quiet day (we were here at the hangar last night as well), we show up at about 10 p.m. We do some check out and then open the hangar doors. We roll out, and they pick us up on the crane a little after midnight. We've done this a bunch of times, but this time is looking pretty good. The low level winds that have been our bane have been dropping in speed and are now below 20 knots. If they keep dropping, this could be it (finally). There is the usual amount of mechanical work to be done on the crane, during which time the weatherman is very busy. He not only has to look at local winds (measured with anemometers and pi-balls, both tethered and released), he also has to keep checking the most recent satellite maps and a whole set of prediction models (not one of the models is good enough to be a "sole source" of weather prediction). Early in the morning, instead of continuing to slow down, the low level winds reverse and start speeding up rapidly. Another No Go. We finally get back to the motel at 4 a.m.
Wednesday, February 12, 2003: A visit from students
Today we had a bunch of students from Anzac School and their two teachers come by the balloon base. We gave them a pretty extensive tour of the facilities and talked to them about balloons, the instrument, and science. They seemed to have quite a good time. One of the teachers is trying to get permission slips from all the parents so that we can put pictures of the class up on the web.
Tuesday, February 11, 2003: Errands
I did a bunch of errands in town today. Gave a letter and pictures to the Alice Springs Town Council to try and get them to pay for the damage to my rental car from the tree branch last week. I also got a roll of film from my 35-mm camera developed, and got a photo CD with it. There are some pretty nice shots, although the digital versions are not as good as the prints.
Monday, February 10, 2003: Alice Springs telegraph station historical reserve
The Alice Springs telegraph station was established in 1872 to serve as the main relay station between Darwin in north Australia and Adelaide in south Australia. It operated as a telegraph station for 60 years, after which it became a school for Aboriginal children. It also was an Australian Army base in WWII. It became a historical reserve in 1963 and has been nicely restored. There are also many walking paths throughout the large park. I had been there when I was in Alice two years ago, but this was my first time this trip. There was quite a bit of wildlife there, and I have a picture of a kangaroo below, and added a bunch of pictures to the wildlife page (a young kangaroo, another galah, a crested pigeon, a white-rumped miner (bird) and several pictures of kites (the hawks, not the paper/wood constructs).
Sunday, February 9, 2003: Barbecue
Dave Sullivan is an Aussie who started working on Alice Springs balloon campaigns in the late 1980s. He did such a good job that NSBF hired him full time. He was a big help to TIGER ( http://tiger.gsfc.nasa.gov ) down in Antarctica last year, and he just got back into town after more than three months in Antarctica this year. He and his wife threw a Sunday afternoon Aussie barbie for the whole balloon gang at his house here in town. Really nice, but now we've got to get the energy to go back to work this evening for a possible launch early tomorrow morning.
Saturday, February 8, 2003: A good meal
I spend most of the day trying to catch up on email at the hangar. For dinner, the whole NIGHTGLOW gang goes out to one of the nicer restaurants in town, the Bluegrass Restaurant (a local grass, nothing to do with music). This is one of those places where the presentation is as good as the food. The also fly in fresh oysters from Adelaide pretty much daily. I get a dozen oysters (this is the furthest from an ocean I've ever had raw oysters by a large margin), and a prawn and pesto fettuccine. Everything is excellent.
Friday, February 7, 2003: An attack tree
In the morning, I do some work at the hangar, but after the weather briefing and lunch, I decide to go to the movies this afternoon (Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers). As usual, I try and find a little shade to park my car in, under one of the gum trees along the Todd River across the street from the theater. When I get out of the movie, I find that the wind has blown a large branch off the gum tree, which put a crease in the door of my rental car. There is at least one witness, the manager of the Todd Tavern Bottle Shop (a drive-through liquor store). I go over to the Avis place in town and fill out this very silly incident report (Speed at time of incident? [zero] Driver of rental vehicle at time of incident? [no one] Who was at fault? [the tree] Was any alcohol consumed in the 12 hours previous to the incident [by me or the tree?]). It was good that I had my digital camera in my pocket. The pictures will help when I try and get the Town Council to pay for the insurance deductible (it was their parking lot and tree).
After dealing with Avis, Bob Hull and I go for a venture in his 4WD rental vehicle. We go a bit overland (dirt and broken up roads) to find a nearby waterhole (Wiggly Water Hole) that he had been told about. An interesting place to walk around, and we get back just before dark.
Thursday, February 6, 2003: Road trip
There is resort (motel, gas station, restaurant, and bar) at the Glen Helen Gorge 135 km (85 miles) west of Alice Springs that I have never been to. The road out there is paved, and there are also quite a few interesting stops along the way. Since we didn't roll out last night, I leave at daybreak (6 a.m.) and head out, planning to have lunch at Glen Helen and then drive back.
Glen Helen is part of the Fincke river system and has quite a bit of water and even a large wetlands area with reeds and lots of water birds. I have a very pleasant lunch on a veranda overlooking the wetlands, hike around for a little, take a few pictures, then head back to Alice Springs to take a nap. We're going to rollout again tonight and try again for a launch tomorrow morning.
Wednesday, February 5, 2003: Talking to more students at Alice Springs High School
Today I gave three more talks at ASHS to 7th and 9th graders. It all goes quite well. In total, I talked to over 200 students in two days. The school videotapes one of my lectures today, and a couple of students videotape an interview with me after my last talk ("Do I like working for NASA?, [Yes, very much] When I was a kid, what did I want to be? [A scientist working for NASA, believe it or not].
In the late afternoon, Louis and I play tennis. It's hot and windy but good exercise. We play at the high school and a kid riding by on his bicycle says "Hey, you're the NASA scientist who talked to us this morning". So he remembers me at least 7 hours later, which I take as a good sign. Louis wins 6-4.
Tuesday, February 4, 2003: Talking to students at Alice Springs High School
Today I was at Alice Springs High School (ASHS) to talk to the students there. Since this campaign has gone late enough to overlap the local school year (they were on summer break until January 30), I thought it would be nice to tell the students in town about why we're here and what we're doing. Today I talked to 10th graders in the morning and two groups of 8th graders in the afternoon. I got some really good questions (especially from the 10th graders), so I think it went very well. One of the afternoon sessions was videotaped by Chris Tangey, the local videographer NIGHTGLOW has hired. The picture below is a still from his tape. I keep the talk pretty general and talk about the balloon and ballooning quite a bit and only talk about cosmic rays and ultraviolet nightglow for a little while.
In the evening, we show up for another rollout, but once again it is scrubbed because the winds a few hundred feet up are way too high. There is some wildlife activity here at the hangar. I take a photo of one of the large Ghost Moths (see the Wildlife webpage). And we also find two small snakes, one inside that one of the guys grabs with leather gloves and takes far way outside, and one right outside the hangar that someone stomps on. I don't get any pictures, but looking at my reptile and amphibian book, it looks like they were immature King Brown snakes. These are EXTREMELY dangerous, with a corrosive neurotoxin venom. While we've been here in Australia, there was a news report about a guy in Queensland who cut off the head of a Brown Snake in his yard. When he went later to pick up the head, a fang nicked his finger. He spent more than a week in intensive care and very nearly died.
Monday, February 3, 2003: Another weather briefing
I realized that in my February 1 journal entry, I only showed one corner of the trailer where the weather briefing is held. The trailer is actually pretty crowded with people, so below is a photo of the rest of the room. I spend most of the day getting ready to talk to a whole bunch of high school students tomorrow and Wednesday. I get a few viewgraphs ready, and collect a lot of show-and-tell equipment: pieces of balloon (old zero-pressure material and the new pumpkin balloon material), steel ballast, a couple of piballs (pilot balloons), one of them inflated (almost a meter in diameter, it takes up a good deal of the back seat of my car), etc. The viewgraphs take the longest time. The color inkjet printer that the weatherman uses is extremely slow, but he is nice enough to let me use it. Everyone here, the NSBF personnel, the balloon engineers, and the weatherman help me out with the presentation. Outreach is an important part of what we do.
Sunday, February 2, 2003: Not a good day
Watching the news first thing in the morning I learn of the Columbia disaster. The pain and shock is still with me, and I feel physically sick all day. My heart goes out to the families of the seven astronauts. The weather briefing says that there is a slim chance of launch tonight, so I go back to my room and try to sleep. Back to the hangar at about 10 p.m. and, although they pick us up on the crane, the low level winds never drop in speed, and we scrub another launch.
Saturday, February 1, 2003: Work and weather briefing
A typical day for us now. We come in and check out the instrument. Then we go to the 10:30 a.m. daily weather briefing (pictured below) to find out whether we've got the rest of the day off, or if we need to go back to sleep so that we can come back in the evening for a possible launch. Tonight is not going to be a launch opportunity.
Wednesday, January 31, 2003: Water in the Todd River, Trephina Gorge, and Chinese New Year
When I wake up in the morning, there is water running in the Todd River from all the rain last night (it also rained north of here, and that water is what is actually flowing through town). This is supposed to be a rare occurence, but it seems to happen every time we come to town. Interesting, but not good for a balloon launch.
Since there is no chance of a launch tonight (too windy), Louis and I head out east after lunch. We go to a place called Trephina Gorge, which was quite nice when some of us went there two years ago. This time it is a lot drier, and there isn't as much wildlife. There are a good number of kangaroos on the road to Trephina Gorge, however, and we get some reasonable pictures (see my wildlife page). We also see the largest Ghost Gum in the Eastern MacDonnell Mountains, and there is a picture of it on the wildlife pages, as well.
Also on the trip to Trephina Gorge is a large razorback rock formation called "Corroboree Rock. It is so narrow and weathered that there are actually holes right through it.
It's the Chinese New Year, so we all go to one of the Chinese Restaurants in town, the Golden Inn. They have a special Chinese New Year fixed menu, and the food is excellent. They also give us lucky packets sealed with coins in them that we are supposed to keep in our pocket for the next year. There is a drawing and I win a "Fortune Box", a small wooden box with flowers under glass windows in the lid and candy inside. Bob Hull wins a small chinese ornament to hang. And everyone get a nice pair of mahogany chopsticks. Definitely a pleasant evening.
Thursday, January 30, 2003: Ellery Creek Big Hole and RAIN!
In the early morning, I head to a place called Ellery Creek Big Hole, a permanent waterhole in one of the canyons. It's about an hours drive west of Alice Springs, and I'm all ready to go at 5:30 a.m. so I can make it there right after daybreak. However, I'm low on gas and none of the gas stations in town opens before 6 a.m., so I have to wait around for another half hour. The drive out west is a little depressing. It's a gray day, with occasional cloud bursts, some of them pretty severe, although short. But a lot of the terrain on the way out to Ellery Creek has been burnt recently. Australia has always had a lot of problems with wildfires. They can be helpful to a habitat in the long term, and the Aborigines have long used fire as a hunting tool, but in this case the area just looks black, gray, and red in a very unappealing way.
In the evening, we got a real, hard, pouring rain for several hours. It was very impressive, with thunder and lightning and nearly solid rain. I stayed in my room and cooked dinner. One step out my door would have meant getting drenched.
Wednesday, January 29, 2003: Desert Park and NIGHTGLOW looks at the Milky Way
I head to the local wildlife park, the "Alice Springs Desert Park" when it opens at 7:30 in the morning. I'm about the only one there that early, and they have an 8 a.m. scheduled tour of "Sand Country". So I get a nice private guided tour of their simulation of the Simpson Desert (most of Australia west of here), complete with comments about edible plants and animals, etc. The Desert Park also has a really nice, big Nocturnal House with lots of neat native species. Their "Birds of Prey" show (which I catch at 10 a.m.) is also a highlight. However, it does make me late for the daily weather briefing (which is at 10:30).
The winds won't be good for a launch tomorrow, but it is expected to be a clear night, so the NIGHTGLOW team decides to come back after sunset and point the two moveable telescopes at the nighttime sky. We take a couple of hours of good data with the telescopes pointed both at the Galactic Center (observable as a bulge in the Milky Way), and at a darker portion of the sky. It's a nice calibration point, and shows us that everything is working very well.
Tuesday, January 28, 2003: Scott Murphy's night out.
The weatherman predicts that tonight will have winds that vary in direction and speed. To avoid any possibility of a disaster, they decide not to even attempt a launch.
Scott Murphy, the NIGHTGLOW Mechanical Engineer is heading back home tomorrow, so we (me, Louis Barbier, Stephen Holder, Brian Abresch, and Bob Hull) decide to take him out on the town. Scott wants one more pint of Beamish Irish Ale at the Firkin and Hound (a firkin is a small wooden keg), so that's we start. We also go to Bojangles Saloon and Restaurant. They have live music there every night, and tonight it's a solo guitar player/singer. He's OK but not great, and after a short set (and a long break), we leave.
Monday, January 27, 2003: Superbowl!
Because of the time shift, the Superbowl kicked off at about 9 a.m. on Monday locally. Stephen Holder (our technician) and a bunch of the guys from the National Scientific Balloon Facility (the people who will actually launch the balloon) rented the bar of a local motel (the Gapview Motel) that had a big screen TV. It was only $15 Australian per person for the room and quite a lot of food (finger food, hot dogs, chicken wings, lamb cutlets, and short ribs). I joined about 20 other guys for a fun morning, although I didn't win anything in the pool (Louis and Stephen each won $50 Aus). It did feel a little weird to be eating like this for breakfast, and drinking beer in the morning (they couldn't serve beer until 10 a.m.).
After a nap in the afternoon, it's back to the airport for another nighttime rollout. This time they take NIGHTGLOW and the crane out to the launch area (which is further than we have gotten in earlier attempts). Everything checks out and they're planning to layout the balloon when the winds take a radical shift in direction and increase in speed. It's another washout, but it is really good that the wind shift didn't happen a few hours later. If it had happened while they were inflating the balloon, it could have destroyed it. That would have meant the end of the whole expedition, because this balloon is the only one of its type in the world.
Sunday, January 26, 2003: Show up, but no rollout
Another beautifully clear night when we show up at 10 p.m., but the low-level winds are way too high (> 30 knots), so we don't even bother pulling NIGHTGLOW out of the hangar, and we get to go home "early" (1 a.m.). This is good, because we're all a little groggy from the weird schedule and tomorrow morning (local time) is the Superbowl.
Saturday, January 25, 2003: Simpson's Gap and second flight rollout
When we finally pull NIGHTGLOW back into the hangar and get it settled, it is about 4:30 a.m. I'm still awake enough that, after going back to my room for breakfast, I decide to do a morning outing. Simpson's Gap is a canyon just west (~15 miles) of town. I had been there when I was in Alice Springs two years ago, but it was in the heat of the afternoon and I didn't get to see the main attraction, the very rare black-footed wallabies. They only come out in the early morning and late evening, and it doesn't get any earlier than this. I get out to Simpson's Gap park by 6 a.m., and I'm the only person here. There are a bunch of wallabies in the rocks, who move away when I first show up, but are quite curious when I stop and sit still for a while. I've got pictures of them on the Wildlife webpage. In the dim light, the digital camera had problems taking good pictures, but I think I got some really good shots on my 35 mm camera. I also got some good digital pictures of a lizard that was about 20 inches long there.
Then back to my room to try and sleep during the day. I'm semi-successful, and head back to the balloon launch site at 10 p.m. Almost every night I've been outside since I got here, it's been cloudy. But tonight it is amazingly clear. The Milky Way stretches across the entire sky and the Greater and Lesser Magellanic clouds are easily visible. The sky is filled with stars more than I am used to seeing even out in the desert in the US. Wonderful.
We roll out of the hangar and sit out there for a few hours, but the low level winds are still against us, so they'll be no launch tonight.
Friday, January 24, 2003: First flight rollout
We had our first flight opportunity tonight. This is going to be the pattern: We get in between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. and start checking out the instrument. At midnight, if the instrument is fully functional and the weather is still looking OK, we roll NIGHTGLOW out of the hangar and the crane picks us up. Then, after a few hours of check out, the crane rolls out to the launch area. When they are sure which direction the wind is going to be blowing at launch (the balloon needs to be upwind of NIGHTGLOW), they start laying out canvas on the ground to protect the balloon. Then, if everying still looks OK, they pull the balloon out of the shipping crate, and stretch it over the canvas (hundreds of feet of it). This is a big step. You can put a balloon back in its box, but it is a difficult job, and it reduces the reliability of the balloon. At this stage, there is a better than 80% chance that we'll launch.
The next big step is when they start filling the balloon with helium. At this point the balloon is committed and a launch abort means the destruction of the balloon. There is a better than 95% chance that we'll launch, once the fill begins. It takes less than an hour to put in all the helium, and launch will follow quickly, because you don't want to leave a tethered inflated balloon blowing in the wind. One anomalous gust could be a disaster.
Tonight, we just sit right outside the hangar while they wait for the weather to improve. The low-level winds (not at ground level, but a few hundred feet up) are 20-25 knots, which is too high. The balloon will have to travel through these winds before the payload is even released, and the shear between the low-level wind speeds and the ground level is more than the balloon can take. Plus the crane would have to move very quickly to position NIGHTGLOW directly under the balloon at release. The weather never improves, so we eventually undo everything and bring NIGHTGLOW back into the hangar. It's been a long night, but we'll try again tomorrow.
Thursday, January 23, 2003: FLIGHT READY!
Not much interesting out at the launch facility, except the SAR is finally in place, so we are "Flight Ready". Now we just need the weather to cooperate.
On the way into work, I took a few pictures of the "Todd River", which runs through town. It is dry 95% of the time, but is a wide sandy river bed with large gum trees sprinkled throughout. The locals say that rivers like this are "either dry or twelve feet high". I also got nice pictures of Galahs (a type of parrot very similar to a cockatoo) and a black kite. They're on the Wildlife web page.
Wednesday, January 22, 2003: Meetings
Today seemed to be taken up with nothing but meetings. We had a weather briefing (these happen most days now that we're getting close to launch). We also had the big meeting, the Flight Readiness Review, where a long checklist of everything we need to fly has to be gone over. The instrument (NIGHTGLOW) is ready to go, but we are still missing one thing. There is a Safety Analysis Report (SAR) that isn't ready yet. The NASA safety people have to write the SAR saying we're not a danger to the general populace. Other than that, we're "Flight Ready", a big milestone. The SAR is supposed to be done tomorrow, and until it's done, we can't fly.
There is also a longer Procedure Review Meeting where we go over what needs to be done on the launch pad, what needs to be done when the flight ends, what is required when NIGHTGLOW is down on the ground, etc.
We also meet with two film crews. One is from a local TV station "Impargia" who will be filming the launch. The other is a local independent group that NIGHTGLOW and NASA Public Affairs hired to do a short documentary on NIGHTGLOW.
Tuesday, January 21, 2003: Second rollout
NIGHTGLOW was picked up on the crane again this morning, to finish all the testing/weighing etc. One of the things we do is make sure that none of the communications interfere with each other or anything else. This is called the compatibility check. Also the National Scientific Balloon Facility people do the official weigh-in of everything that we are going to fly (a few pieces of insulation are not on yet, but they're weighed too).
Everything we needed to do was completed, so it looks like we're good to go. In the afternoon, the entire NIGHTGLOW team down under climbed up on the crane for a photo.
NIGHTGLOW team (from left to right): Rick Walker (GPSREX - Piggyback Instrument), Scott Murphy (Mechanical Engineer), Louis Barbier (Principal Investigator), Brian Abresch (Iridium Experiment Payload), Roy Park (Technician), Tom Nolan (Programmer), Bob (Clem) Hull (Technician), Eric Christian (Co-Investigator), Stephen Holder (Technician)
Monday, January 20, 2003: First rollout
Early this morning, we opened the big doors of the hangar and rolled NIGHTGLOW out onto a cement area right in front of the hangar (the pad). Then a large crane came over and picked us up off the ground. This is the same crane that will hold us up in the air for launch. It also has to maneuver the payload to directly below the balloon before releasing us.
We removed the wheels on the four legs that we use during integration, and add the crush pads that we will fly. The crush pads are large pieces of corrugated cardboard that act as shock absorbers for our landing. We do a whole bunch of the final fixing up of the instrument, but then the wind starts to pick up and NIGHTGLOW is starting to sway. So we put the wheels back on and head back into the hangar. This means another early morning tomorrow.
Sunday, January 19, 2003:
Another full day of work, buttoning up the instrument (which means putting it in it's final configuration).
Pulling into what passes for a parking lot (dirt), you can tell that we are all from out of town. Everyone has very similar looking (some completely identical) rental cars, which causes a bit of confusion at times.
Almost 15 years ago there was a balloon campaign here (that I was not on) in which the Gap flooded so badly that people were stuck out at the balloon base and airport and had no access to town for a few days. No change of clothes, limited food, etc. I hear it was pretty unpleasant. There is no civilization south of here for quite a few (~1000) miles.
Saturday, January 18, 2003:
First full day of work. I woke up at 5:30 a.m., fully rested and with no sign of jet lag. NIGHTGLOW is almost ready to fly (some of the people on the team have been here for two or three weeks). I spend most of the day catching up on what NIGHTGLOW's status is, and catching up on a few days of email.
Friday, January 17, 2003: Arrival
Because of the International Date Line, there essentially was no January 16th for me. I arrived in Alice Springs at about noon today, after a 14 hour flight from LA to Sydney, then a few hours in Sydney customs and baggage check-in, and a three hour flight to Alice Springs airport. The flights were uneventful, but I don't sleep well in planes (who does?), and so I've been mostly awake for a long time.
Time to rent a car and remember how to drive on the left side of the road again. I've done it before without any problem, but it always takes a little readjustment. At least the car has an automatic transmission. I've also driven manual transmission cars on the left, and the extra adjustment (and brainpower) to shift with your left hand is an added distraction.
The airport is about 11 km (7 miles) outside of town, and the hangar where NIGHTGLOW is being readied is right by the airport. I stop in to let the team know I'm here and then head into town to check into my motel, shower, and change.
I head back to work for the afternoon and actually have the strength to play tennis after work for a little bit. Then a quick dinner and I'm asleep by 9:30.
Wednesday, January 15, 2003: Departure
I left Los Angeles at 10 p.m. after a full day of meetings at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. I had flown out to Southern California on Saturday for several days of meetings at JPL and Caltech (also in Pasadena). Caltech is where I went to graduate school, so it still feels a little like home to me, and I still have plenty of friends in the area.
This file was last modified February 23,