NASA: Huge Science Balloon Crashed Because of Human Complacency
Project personnel inspect damage following a NASA scientific balloon launch mishap on April 28 at the Alice Springs Balloon Launching Center, near the town of Alice Springs, Australia. No injuries were reported. NASA is convening an investigation board. <a href=http://www.space.com/news/nasa-balloon-telescope-crash-100429.html>Full Story</a>.
Credit: NASA

Complacency in a variety of forms led to the April crash of a huge NASA science balloon carrying a multimillion-dollar telescope in the Australian outback, according to a new report released today (Oct. 22).

A NASA Mishap Investigation Board has concluded that weather conditions were acceptable for the failed balloon launch on April 29, and there were no technical problems with the balloon or its scientific payload, a $2 million gamma-ray telescope. However, the board identified 25 different human-caused factors that led to the spectacular crash. [Photo of the crash aftermath.]

Most of these causes were related to shortcomings in risk analysis, contingency planning, personnel training, technical knowledge, government oversight and public safety accommodations, according to NASA officials.

"First, the [NASA] Balloon Program has been operating under an underlying assumption that the risks to the public only exist in the overflight of populated areas," the report states. "This assumption has led to a very limited view of the hazards and their associated targets involved in launching balloons. Next, the decades of successful balloon launches under a tight budget have led to complacency and a sense that performance of safety and technical measures can be relaxed under the guise of risk acceptance."

Astronomy experiment came crashing down

NASA attempted to launch the immense, 400-foot (121-meter) balloon from a site in Alice Springs in Australia's Northern Territory.

But the balloon didn't make it very far.

Just as the balloon started to rise, the gondola for its scientific payload — the University of California at Berkeley's Nuclear Compton Telescope — came loose. The telescope then fell and was dragged 450 feet (137 meters), crashing through a fence and overturning a nearby parked car before finally coming to a stop.

No one was injured in the crash, but the telescope was partially destroyed, NASA officials said. The instrument was going to look for distant galaxies from about 120,000 feet (36,576 meters) up in Earth's atmosphere.

NASA balloon launches suspended

Immediately after the crash, launch operations at all of NASA's balloon sites were suspended. NASA's Balloon Program Office plans to resume launches once it has implemented and verified new procedures to safeguard launch crews and the public, agency officials said.

"There is no question in our minds that balloon launches are fragile processes," said mishap board leader Michael Weiss, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in a statement. "In the course of our investigation, we found surprisingly few documented procedures for balloon launches. No one considered the launch phase to be a potential hazard."

The purpose of the investigation was to discover what caused the mishap and provide recommendations to help prevent similar accidents in the future. The board listed 44 recommendations regarding the need for better communication; more robust range and ground safety plans and procedures; and better understanding of potentially unsafe conditions that can lead to accidents, officials said.

"We have learned a lot from this incident, and we'll have a better balloon program because of it," said Rob Strain, Goddard Space Flight Center director.