Darrell Todd Maurina
FORT SUMNER — The city is best known for Billy the Kid’s grave and historical memorabilia of the Wild West.
But north of town, several miles down a two-lane road that passes fields with grazing goats and cows, stands the old Fort Sumner Army Air Field.
While some buildings show their age and date back nearly six decades, others are strikingly different — including a large whitewashed concrete control tower with “NASA” painted in large letters above the old airstrip.
Inside that building, scientists from all over the world gather each summer to launch multi-million dollar scientific equipment with missions as varied as studying depletion of the ozone layer, detecting star formation in distant galaxies, and measuring antimatter radiation from outer space.
In a town named for a fort built to protect settlers from marauding Apaches, the World-War II-era military facilities at Fort Sumner now serve as the launching site for massive high-atmosphere balloons that rise 130,000 feet — nearly 2-1/2 miles high. The balloons provide a less-expensive alternative for scientific research than rocket launches.
Carl Vick, who retired as a first sergeant after nearly three decades helping run military training programs at Fort Sumner, now works for the National Scientific Balloon Facility, a NASA contractor based in Palestine, Texas, that uses Fort Sumner as its primary launch site. Nearly half of the company’s 28 worldwide research balloon launches in 2003 are scheduled at Fort Sumner.
If the weather cooperates this morning, researchers from 10 different universities in four nations will see their project — a special telescope searching for new stars being formed two to 10 billion light years away — rise to the very edge of space.
Getting a telescope weighing more than 4,000 pounds that high isn’t easy.
“These balloons are 40 million cubic feet, and of course it is not fully expanded until it gets up in the upper atmosphere, but you could put the entire Houston Astrodome inside it,” Vick said. “NASA spends a lot of money here in Fort Sumner with these projects.”
Bart Netterfield of the University of Toronto said the main problem with the balloon method is weather conditions such as fog that canceled a planned Friday launch.
“On any given day the odds aren’t too good, but eventually you get off,” Netterfield said.
By getting above 99.5 percent of the atmosphere, University of Pennsylvania professor Mark Dervin said the special telescope will be able to detect minute radiation wavelengths that could never be seen on Earth.
“If you tried to see these galaxies from the ground, it doesn’t matter how big your telescope is, you still wouldn’t see anything because the atmosphere absorbs everything,” Dervin said. “You get above the atmosphere, the sky just lights up.”
Tetsuya Yoshida of a Tokyo-based research organization said he’s been bringing Japanese graduate students to New Mexico to launch research balloons for years. His project this year will launch a massive magnetic device into the upper atmosphere to measure antimatter radiation.
Yoshida said his students enjoy seeing a New Mexico landscape that is very different from their crowded and mountainous homeland.
“They are very surprised to see completely different scenery,” Yoshida said.
The area’s flat land, dry weather and sparse population are perfect for the balloon program, according to National Scientific Balloon Facility site manager Danny Ball.
“These are the largest flying objects that were ever built, and if the weather conditions aren’t right it can be very dangerous,” Ball said. “The primary reason we came out here is the population density (in Texas) had slowly increased to the point that we didn’t feel we could safely bring these payloads down.”
Ball said the balloon launches usually occur in summer and early fall when wind conditions allow the best flight conditions. While the projects aren’t classified and people can make arrangements to see a launch, he can’t predict the weather.
“The public is welcome to come out to watch, but it can be very frustrating not knowing when the winds will be right,” Ball said.