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To the Edge of Space
UT Tyler Graduates Help Provide Creative Solutions for Scientists Through NASA Balloon Program


nasa logoIn 1783, man first broke the boundaries of gravity when two brothers from France — Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier — sent a small, crude balloon they had created into the sky using hot air from a fire.

Since that first effort to fly more than 220 years ago, the science of ballooning has continued to explore the unknown. Today, high-tech balloons can travel to the edge of space, providing a critical medium of study for scientific investigation.

In fact, high-altitude balloons are offering solutions for scientists who need access to the skies and beyond, but who do not have the resources to use expensive satellites and space shuttles.

David Pierce, balloon program office chief for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said, “Science on balloons is more important than it’s ever been … with the lack of access to space for small satellites as well as restrictions on performing observational science from the space shuttle. We can provide very good science for very little money on balloons.”

The portal to that “good science” is found nestled in the wooded countryside of East Texas — NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, located in Palestine, Texas. Through this unique facility, teams of scientists, engineers and technicians launch large (400-foot in diameter) unmanned, high altitude research balloons to gather scientific data for NASA centers and universities from all over the world. The University of Texas at Tyler is proud to have our graduates be part of this program.

CSBF engineers Chris Field, Juan Perez and Joseph Jones are UT Tyler electrical engineering graduates. Dwayne Orr, CSBF deputy site manager, said, “We are very pleased with the job these guys are doing for us and can attest to the fact that all three were very prepared to begin a career in engineering.”

Michelle Johnson
Michelle Johnson
Graduate from UT Tyler: 1997
Degree: Computer Science
Joined CSBF team: 2001

Network administrator for the facility, Michelle Johnson, and accountant Mitchell Coleman are also UT Tyler graduates. They are all part of a critical team helping to provide creative solutions for the science community.

“Our real niche and the strength of our program is the ability to fly very heavy payloads, up to 8,000 pounds, (of) sophisticated experiments to high altitudes on short notice for a relatively low cost,” said CSBF site manager Danny Ball.

These balloons, made of polyethylene film that is about the width of a sandwich wrapper, are filled with helium, the same gas used to inflate party balloons, and launched in strategic locations around the world, carrying up to 8,000 pounds of equipment.

They rise to 26 miles high, the very edge of space, and remain aloft for up to two weeks. At altitude, the balloons expand to the size of a football stadium.

Dr. Vernon Jones, NASA balloon program scientist, said, “To launch into space would take a very expensive launch vehicle — literally $100 million for the launch — we do these for certainly one-hundredth of that or less.” The balloons carry payloads of research in cosmic ray studies, gamma ray and x-ray astronomy, infrared astronomy, atmospheric sciences, magnetospherics and micrometeorite particles.

How does this impact our lives? Research results in scientific discoveries, technical advancements and study in medicine, climate and weather patterns, energy and more.

“Any science that can be done above about 99.5 percent of the earth’s atmosphere — either looking up or looking down — can be done with balloons,” Dr. Jones said. “CSBF is the premier launch facility for balloons in the entire world. No one even comes close. They’re very, very good. We can be proud of our balloon program.”

In its history, the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility has launched more than 1,700 balloons for 35 universities, 23 other research agencies and 33 foreign groups.

Johnson, a 1997 UT Tyler computer science graduate who has worked for the facility for five years said being part of the CSBF team is rewarding because of the far-reaching impact of the research projects. As network administrator, Johnson keeps the Internet and computer systems up and running and helps monitor flights. “Wow! It is an overwhelming feeling to know that you can have a part in the research that is going on,” she said. “It is something that you can someday tell your grandkids about.”

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