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Interview with
Bruce Erickson, Launch Master

'If anything goes wrong at these low altitudes, they may not be able to parachute out.'

EricksonNOVA: So, Bruce, tell us how one becomes a launch master for a project like this.

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?

via RealAudio:
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EricksonERICKSON: 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. Synchronized 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?

via RealAudio:
14.4 | 28.8 | ISDN
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 parachute out.

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.

Interviews: Ackroyd | Branson | Erickson | Eversfield | Kendrick

Photos: Aaron Strong

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