NOVA: So, Bruce, tell us how one becomes a launch master for a project
ERICKSON: My experience is as a general contractor. I build custom
homes and office buildings in Reno and surrounding areas. Last January I was
sent to Morocco by Virgin to make sure that the concrete was poured properly
(for the launch site), to set up all of the equipment, be the liaison, if you
will, in the base. I was, basically, the one who was able to get things that
we needed while we were in Marakech. Every morning when we'd have our 9:00
briefing, people would come to me with their wish lists, everything from
compressors to toilet paper. I mean, it was really kind of interesting. I'm a
can-do kind of a guy.
NOVA: Was that typical of all launch situations?
ERICKSON: That was a non-launch situation. We had Giles Camplin, who
was our launch master (at that time). And Giles busied himself with the
weather and pretty much left the rest of us alone to do our jobs. In June, I
was called because there'd been a problem with a helium balloon that was
inflated in Stockholm Sweden and, apparently, they'd had some problems with it
and I got a call from Per Lindstrand to get on the next airplane and come to
Sweden and inflate this thing. And upon my arrival, Per sat me down in his
office and—quite off guard, he really just sat there and said, "Bruce, I'd
like you to be the launch master of Virgin Global,"—because I really don't
have the balloon qualifications of so many people I know and who are on the
team. I'm not a pilot, I love aviation and I understand balloons—large
helium balloons. And I was a little flabbergasted. I was very honored, but at
the same time, I knew that it was a huge, huge job. But I've got the best
people in the world. So my job will be infinitely easier than a lot of
people's, because I'll be able to just tell them to do their job.
NOVA: It seems to me that a lot of your job is actually orchestrating;
so you don't necessarily have to know every little detail about...
ERICKSON: Exactly. You bet.
NOVA: I've heard you describe the launch process as starting from the
ground up, with laying concrete. How does that ground-level preparation help
you get a complex balloon system like this into the air?
ERICKSON: We have to dig a hole in the ground, approximately three feet
by three feet by three feet, and we have to fill it up with concrete and put a
foot of reinforcing bar—half-inch reinforcing bar sticking out of the ground
in the shape of a "U" so that we can attach some winches. Sixteen winches.
The engineers have decided that the proper way to launch this balloon is to
launch it vertically, rather than to lift it up horizontally over the top of
the capsule, which we had intended to have on the launch pad and so on...So
now, we're going to remove all the hardware that we'd poured in there last year
and we're going to use a launch vehicle and we'll actually inflate the balloon
over the pad, held down by sixteen winches and we'll roll the entire capsule
with its propane tanks complete, ready to fly, everything loaded on board—food, water, everything, and we will roll the capsule under the balloon,
under the rigging, and then we will pull the balloon back down with these
sixteen synchronized winches. And we will attach the fly wires and we will
proceed to fill the balloon with the remaining helium, which will take another
three or four hours.
NOVA: And how long is this whole process?
ERICKSON: It will probably seem like forever. That whole sequence
should probably take three hours, maybe less, considering the balloon is all
laid out. I think it shouldn't take us very long at all. We'll probably start
at 5:00 in the evening and we'll, maybe, be ready at dawn to pull the trigger.
NOVA: For launch, what are your ideal local weather conditions?
ERICKSON: Well, the local conditions are dead calm. We would like to
have a high pressure set in over Morocco. We would like to have zero to three
mile-an-hour winds for a three-day period. Our procedure will require at least
two days of active work on the launch site. We don't want to have to stop and
haul things back into the hanger because rain is coming.
The whole outlook of this is we have never, and we will never consider to
inflate the balloon, get everything ready and not launch. We don't have
anything built into the scenario to hold our flight. So what we would like is
a completely clear, clean weather pattern for 72 hours, at which time, we will
be busily making final preparations on the capsule. In 48 hours, we will move
the capsule out onto the launch vehicle, at the end of this runway, out of the
way of the balloon. We will have a team that will be loading and completing
electronics checking, loading the food, the ballast, all of that. And then, we
will—24 hours before, we will haul the balloon. We will lay out the plastic.
We will, in fact, lay the balloon out, fluff it up so that its crown is in the
center of the launch area, and we will prepare to be ready in the afternoon so
that will take a brief break, we will change our clothes, we will get ready,
have something to eat and then, at 5:00, 6:00, we'll go out and start the
launch procedure and start the inflation.
That's the key to the whole project. At this time, I mean, even if we have a
little fluffs coming through at 72 hours—I say, wind, fluffs, I hope that
they will die down. We know that we can't get it perfectly calm. We'll have
meteorologists and other people that will be reading. We have readings for a
year now of local air movements. We know that we have spikes of wind in the
middle of the night, 2:00 in the morning-ish, but in fact, we do know that with
this type of launch that we're going to have, this balloon will be safe,
relatively speaking, to some of these little blusters that come through.
NOVA: What is the most critical moment at launch?
ERICKSON: Well, the critical moment at launch is when we push the
launch cutters. We push the fire button to cut them away. That, until they
reach five to ten thousand feet, is the most dangerous time that they'll have.
Because if anything goes wrong at those low altitudes, they may not be able to
NOVA: Is your job done then, at that moment that the cutters fire?
ERICKSON: Well, I know I'm going to do what I always do after a launch,
I usually help clean up a bit. I get in my truck and go home and I go to bed
and I wait for the phone to ring. I mean, I pray that it doesn't happen this
time. They've asked me to stay on at Marakech for four days, three or four
days, and now we go into a different mode. It will be just a safety thing. I
will stay in Marakesh until they clear the Mediterranean, at which point, I
will go up to London because I'll be part of the group—should they go down
anywhere prior to finalizing their flight all the way around the world, we'll
have to go out and help package it up and bring it home.
NOVA: You'll be picking up the pieces.
ERICKSON: The piece. (laughter) Should they land on land.