The first deployment for SPIDER was to Palestine, Texas. NASA’s Columbia Scientific Ballooning Facility (CSBF) is based there. CSBF launches payloads from many locations including Antarctica. They used to launch balloons from Palestine, TX as well, but the facility is now used exclusively for “compatibility testing”. Experiments like ours show up for the summer, integrate our instruments with CSBF’s communications equipment to make sure everything plays together nicely and check for mechanical clearances with launch vehicles (hence “compatibility”), and do some of our own calibration of the instrument that would be difficult elsewhere.
Texas was similar to my earlier deployment to the Eastern Sierras, but there’s significantly less to do in your leisure time there (aside from gorging on barbecue). It was also less extreme in that it was possible to come home for weekends relatively frequently and the environment is plenty hospitable, if a bit hot and humid.
The deployment was very hectic. As this was the first balloon-based experiment I’ve worked on, it was initially overwhelming to grasp the concept that you only have ~two more months to fix everything, and if you don’t you’ll either have to delay the flight an entire year or hedge your bets on whether or not things are ‘good enough’ for the probability of a successful flight. There’s certainly a different mindset when working on a ground based instrument where your experiment isn’t dangling from a balloon and you can literally walk up to it and fix problems over the course of observations. While overwhelming, it’s also thrilling to work your way through these problems and inspiring to see how everyone can band together and accomplish what might seem impossible at first.
Again, I wish I blogged more regularly then. As a poor substitute for that, here are some photos from my time in Texas:
A final note: SPIDER was supposed to be deployed to Antarctica directly following the integration in Texas. Our crates and sea containers filled with equipment got as far as New Zealand before being boomeranged back due to the government shutdown that year.