When Marcel Verstraete came to work at NCAR in May 1962, construction of the Mesa Lab was still years in the future. Scientists used slide rules instead of computers. And because there were no satellites to carry instruments, a major goal of the atmospheric research community was to send balloons into orbit around Earth to take temperature and wind readings.
“NCAR was small enough that everybody knew everybody else,” Marcel says, smiling at the recollection of those often heady days.
Marcel is still at NCAR, and he is now the center’s second most senior staffer. MMM’s Charlie Knight started one month before him. The two men, along with other senior staffers, were honored at a dinner in December (see the February issue of Staff Notes Monthly).
Marcel, who now helps handle field project logistics for ATD, recently agreed to share some of his experiences with Staff Notes Monthly. This is part of an occasional series of articles on the early days of NCAR, which was founded just two years before Marcel joined it.
Establishing a flight center
Before coming to NCAR, Marcel worked for a lab in Philadelphia that specialized in weather technology. One of his primary tasks was working with the U.S. Air Force to design a system that would speed up the transmission of weather maps (the transmission over teletype machines took 40–45 minutes in those days). He was recruited to NCAR by Vin Lally, who headed the center’s ballooning group.
At his first office in the CU Armory, and then in NCAR’s rented space at 30th Street and Marine, Marcel worked with a half-dozen colleagues in the ballooning group to establish a Scientific Balloon Flight Station. The budget was so tight that the group relied on surplus equipment from the General Services Administration. In fact, one of Marcel’s earlier memories is driving down to the Pueblo Army Depot to pick up a surplus M33 radar to track balloon flights. “We had no means of dragging this giant thing back to Boulder,” Marcel recalls. “We had to borrow a big Army truck.”
The group used a U.S. Army cold test chamber at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland to analyze the strength of balloon materials (typically Mylar) at the very low temperatures that are prevalent high in the atmosphere. NCAR also ran a series of tests to reassure the Federal Aviation Administration that balloons posed no hazards to airplanes. One of these tests involved blowing a 100-gram (3.5-ounce) balloon telemetry package into a jet engine. The engine’s outside fan had a few nicks, but there was no change in engine performance.
The balloon group selected Palestine, Texas, as the site for the Scientific Balloon Flight Station, in part because of favorable prevailing winds. Marcel still remembers the first launch of a scientific flight there in 1963. “It was just thrilling,” he says. The team used the Army surplus radar to track the flight over Texas—and yes, says Marcel, “that old radar worked fine.”
The group also launched balloons in the early 1960s from a site that no longer exists: the floor of Glen Canyon. As the Bureau of Reclamation constructed the Glen Canyon Dam to flood the canyon and create Lake Powell, it built a temporary earthen cofferdam. NCAR’s balloon team used it as a launch site because the partially constructed Glen Canyon Dam acted as an excellent windbreak, enabling them to inflate balloons without worrying about wind damage.
Sometimes, Marcel says, he took a turn at a tracking station at the rim of the canyon and watched for the balloon to rise. “It was the most exciting thing to see this huge, plastic, jellyfish-shaped balloon rising out of the dark canyon at dawn and slowly breaking out into the sunlight,” he recalls. “As the sun caught it, it just glowed. Those were days that were absolutely marvelous.”
Circling the globe
This early 1960s photograph shows how balloons were launched from the floor of Glen Canyon. (Photo from NCAR archives.)
The balloons that NCAR launched from Palestine and Glen Canyon were known as zero-pressure balloons. They typically remained aloft for several days and drifted for several hundred miles. In the mid-1960s, Vin and the balloon team began perfecting superpressure balloons. Made of Mylar instead of polyethylene, the balloons were designed to circle Earth at various altitudes, collecting wind and temperature data in remote regions. They couldn’t be flown in the Northern Hemisphere because the Soviet Union at the time prohibited overflights. The alternative was to send balloons into orbit around the Southern Hemisphere, launching them from Christchurch, New Zealand.
Marcel drew the plum assignment of relocating to Christchurch to oversee the program. He moved there in 1966, along with another member of the NCAR balloon team, Bob Frykman, who stayed in Christchurch temporarily. The team spelled Ernie Lichfield and Vin, who had set up the Christchurch program the previous year.
The superpressure balloon project, called Global Horizontal Sounding Technique (GHOST), fulfilled the long-time goal of atmospheric scientists to have a semipermanent platform floating high in the atmosphere. The balloons’ electronics, powered by solar calls, transmitted a single Morse Code letter. The repetition of the letter got faster as the Sun’s angle increased, enabling people on the ground to track the balloon’s position, as well as the speed and direction of the winds pushing the balloon. The project relied on volunteers at several Southern Hemisphere stations, who were equipped with nothing more than a receiver and a stopwatch to time the repetition of the Morse Code letter. These data were then transmitted to Boulder via teletype.
An NCAR superpressure balloon in a New Zealand maintenance hangar in the late 1960s is inspected prior to flight. (Photo from NCAR archives.)
Marcel also received invaluable help from the forecasters and staff at the New Zealand Meteorological Station, who kept the NCAR team apprised of weather conditions, and from staff at Air New Zealand, who permitted the team to inflate and test large balloons in its huge maintenance hangar. In addition, the U.S. Air Force and Navy provided logistical support with transporting helium and assisting with the launches. “There was just an unbelievable spirit of cooperation,” Marcel says.
One GHOST balloon set a record by remaining in orbit for 744 days, circling Earth 63 times. “We couldn’t believe it,” Marcel says. “It just kept coming around and around and around. We would say, ‘Is this it again?’”
When Marcel returned to Boulder in 1985, satellites had taken over the role of obtaining readings from large segments of the atmosphere. NCAR had relocated to its own building, the Mesa Lab, and in a few years it would expand to the Foothills campus. Marcel now works in FL2, just a few miles from where he began in the CU Armory.
The balloons played an invaluable role in providing atmospheric scientists with data from around the world. “Thanks in large part to Vin, Marcel, and all the other fine staffers on the NCAR balloon team, we were able to gain key insights into our global atmosphere,” says David Parsons, ATD’s interim deputy director. For example, he notes that the wind data from balloons played an important role in the First GARP (Global Atmospheric Research Programme) Global Experiment. This experiment helped form the foundation for our current global numerical weather prediction centers.
“In addition to the contributions of ballooning to weather prediction,” David says, “missions carrying instruments on these large balloons have been used to address scientific questions in such diverse research areas as high-energy astronomy, solar physics, stratospheric chemistry, and even the search for antimatter.”
Looking back over the years, Marcel says, “I think I’ve been extremely fortunate in that I’ve had the pleasure of working with some wonderful people. The job wasn’t work. It was fun.”
And, he says, he’s still enjoying it. •David Hosansky