Human error caused space balloon crash, says NASA

Posted by Emma Woollacott

NASA says the crash of a space balloon earlier this year was caused by human error - and that mistakes like an inability to remember the phone number of the Australian emergency services contributed to the danger.

The balloon, designed to carry a $10 million gamma ray telescope, crashed on take-off back in April in Alice Springs. It was ripped from its moorings by a strong gust of wind and crashed into a nearby car. The occupants had a narrow escape.

Now, NASA has released its report into the accident, concluding that the primary cause was insufficient risk analysis before the launch. Officials simply didn't regard the operation as particularly dangerous, it says.

"There is no question in our minds that balloon launches are fragile processes," said Michael L Weiss, who heads NASA's Mishap Investigation Board.

"The Mishap Board reviewed a large volume of information about the accident and conducted numerous interviews with eyewitnesses. But in the course of our investigation, we found surprisingly few documented procedures for balloon launches. No one considered the launch phase to be a potential hazard."

The report also says thaty there was insufficient contingency planning, and that staff weren't well enough trained or careful enough about keeping the public at a safe distance.

Further mistakes were made in the immediate aftermath of the crash.

"Realising that a vehicle was hit and spectators were involved, the campaign manager did attempt to call emergency response personnel, but became confused between the United States '911' emergency number and the Australian emergency number, and was unable to make the call," says the report.

Following the accident, launch operations were suspended at all of NASA's balloon sites. NASA says its Balloon Program Office will resume launches once it's implemented and verified new procedures to safeguard launch crews and the public.

The full report is available as two pdfs, here.