This is surreal.
I have been working on SPIDER for three and a half years, and much of the rest of the collaboration has been working for many years beyond that. We have all gone through intense times of stress and disappointment, victories and defeats. The personal sacrifice on the part of every individual on the team to get SPIDER to the point of flight readiness has been a weight on all of our shoulders as we prepared to launch our hopes and dreams on a balloon.
Ballooning is incredibly risky. Everything can work flawlessly on the ground, and then one thing can break during launch, or freeze or overheat at float altitude, and no amount of commanding from afar can bring it back to life. This happens so often in ballooning, and all you can do is obsess over every aspect of the experiment, have redundancy where possible, and hope that there is nothing that you have missed. Luck helps too.
We can happily report that so far as we can tell, everything is working fantastically. We had a couple of bugs to sort out, but had the necessary redundancy and planning to deal with the problems that arose. None of our major fears came to pass, and we are now taking some state of the art pictures of the CMB. I am so proud of this team and what we have accomplished. I work with a remarkable group of people- a dedicated, hardworking, and brilliant team that I am also privileged to call friends. We have had high highs and low lows. We have had a grueling integration campaign in Texas, a government shutdown delay our launch by a year, a host of cryo-tastrophes, shipping damage, broken components, and weather delays upon weather delays. But we have worked diligently toward this single goal, and now that we have met it, I couldn’t be more proud.
Ok, now that I have indulged in sentimentality, let me tell you about launch day. Since time of day means absolutely nothing here, I will define launch day as starting at 4:30 am Dec. 31, since that is the last time I was asleep before we launched. This was hang test day. Before you launch, you have to go through the motions of getting ready to launch. The launch vehicle comes and picks up SPIDER and takes her out, but then stops before going to the pad. We make sure all our systems are functioning and all of our telemetry links are operational, and then come back inside. This is also a great opportunity for pictures!
We rolled out a bit after 8, so everyone got in early that day to prepare. During the hang test, we were informed that weather for the next day would be good for a launch, which was absolutely thrilling to hear, but also meant we had a very long day ahead of us. Before launching, we needed to fill our helium tank to the brim, which takes several hours, and ensure that every last little thing was in working order and ready to fly. For me, this meant I didn’t sleep that night (though I did make an effort for a couple of hours). I was SO excited and terrified.
We rolled out around 4 am on New Years Day, and the weather seemed perfect. I was posted inside, monitoring the health of our cryostat and issuing commands for valving operations. As we got the all clear from the weatherman to roll out to the pad and lay out the flight train around 8 am, we were all giddy with anticipation. It was happening. We were ready. The weather was perfect.
But the weather wasn’t perfect. The winds higher up where the balloon would be during launch were too fast, and so we were put in a weather hold. This lasted for something like 5 hours, while we all kept monitoring systems, ready to launch whenever they would clear us. The adrenaline started fading, and I got tired, so I made a trip out to the pad to get excited and woken up again. Shortly after I returned inside, we got the word that the winds had settled, and we were launching.
I planted myself in front of my cryo plots, and nervously watched, willing everything to stay ok for one more hour as the balloon inflated. I made a quick sprint outside to see the beginning of balloon inflation, and after sending my final valving commands minutes before launch, I ran outside again to watch the balloon take SPIDER away. I was a mess of nervous energy, along with most of the rest of the team. As soon as we were off the ground, I raced back inside to check on systems. I radioed the team, gleefully informing them that cryo looked fine, that everything looked fine. We had survived launch.
Over the next couple of hours, we all huddled around our computers, and as each subsystem came online, working as designed, we all cheered. By 9 PM, we were at float altitude and nothing had gone seriously wrong. I went home and slept like a rock as others got all of the details sorted and started taking data on the CMB.
Now we’re on shifts monitoring the tiny packet of data we receive every 10-15 minutes telling us that everything is ok up there. And everything is ok up there. Just like we designed it.