Sites & Attractions

Columbia Science Balloon Facility

Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility

Palestine- If you didn’t make it to the Space Center in Houston this summer, the Official Visitors Center of NASA’s Johnson’s Space Center and home of astronaut training and Mission Control, take a quick trip to Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF) in East Texas. CSBF is a NASA-run facility outside of Palestine, where balloons carrying sensitive data are launched into earth’s atmosphere.

CSBF got its start in the 1961 in Boulder, CO as the National Science Foundation. Shortly after, a search began for a perfect site, located in the center of the U.S. A centrally located site would allow for flights towards the East in the winter and to the west during the summer. The search was soon narrowed to Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas.

Initially, the small town of Hope, AK was selected for its exceptional airport and hangars, however, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would not grant authorization to the site for balloon launchings because the site was located in the middle of several national airways.

East Texas on the other hand, was a perfect block of open airspace, free from the populated airways of mainstream commercial traffic. After evaluating several East Texas cities, Palestine was designated to be the new site of the balloon facility.

The facility was moved from Boulder to Palestine, in 1963 and confirmed as the National Science Balloon Facility (NSBF) 10 years later, January 1973. Later that same year in August, a new launch area was constructed. A 1,000 foot diameter paved circle for the launch vehicle with a 500 foot radius extension for balloon layout provided twice the useful area of the old pad and greater flexibility in balloon layout.

In 1982, NSBF sponsorship was transferred to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The site has been managed by New Mexico State University since 1982.

NASA’s facility in Palestine provides complete balloon operations services and engineering support to the United States and foreign scientific communities. According to NASA, “The operations services include inflation, launching of the balloon, tracking and recovery of the payload, and telecommand and data retrieval with reliable electronics systems. Some of the areas of engineering support are design of balloon systems, research in balloon materials, electronics design, gondola design and thermal analysis. Also included are power system design, instrumentation design and integration, and recovery system design.”

Over The last quarter-century, the East Texas facility has launched more than 1700 balloons for 35 universities, 23 other research agencies, and 33 foreign groups. Over the course of this time there has been a dramatic increase in the level of sophistication of experiments and demands for service from NSBF. All of these factors make CSBF in Palestine the most active facility of the U.S.

On February 1, 2003 the Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew were forever lost over East Texas, as the shuttle broke apart entering earth’s atmosphere. Columbia’s 28th and final flight was a 16-day mission dedicated to research in physical, life, and space sciences. In the months following the loss over East Texas, NSBF was instrumental to debris recovery operations.

Three years after the tragic crash that rained down over East Texas, NSBF was renamed the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF) to serve as a reminder of what the crew of the Columbia stood for: honor, bravery, and the quest for knowledge for generations to come.

CSBF has launched six ELBBO superpressure balloons (including the longest balloon flight in our history. Today the base has all the infrastructure necessary to operate balloons of any size with areas for the integration of scientific gondolas, buildings of storage, hangars, a complete weather station with three meteorologists full-time, and 2 airplanes Cessna of pursuit and air support.

CSBF launches between 25 and 35 balloons each year. The launch window in Palestine is from May to September. Most launches at the facility take place from June through August. By launching during those peak months, NASA is able to take advantage of prevailing winds that carry the balloons away from heavily populated areas.

Balloons have been used for decades to conduct scientific studies. They are used for numerous types of research. Research purposes include: Cosmic Ray studies, Gamma Ray and X-Ray Astronomy, Optical and Ultra-Violet Astronomy, Infared Astronomy, Atmospheric Sciences, Magnetospherics, Micrometeorite Particles and Cosmic Microwave Background Studies.

In addition to the East Texas operation in Palestine, the CSBF conducts scientific ballooning operations in various remote sites in the U.S. as well as across the globe. The Facility is recognized on the international level as being one of the most advanced organizations of its type in the world. CSBF has flown experiments for Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Russia and Sweden.

Weather balloons often cause a lot of hype in the Pineywoods. Weather balloons are believed to be the source of numerous Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) sightings reported over East Texas. The weather balloons have a shiny, metallic surface appearance and can be as large as 300 feet in diameter. They are buffeted by winds and therefore move about erratically.

NASA’s facility, CSBF is located at 1510 E. FM 3224 in Palestine. For more information about scheduling a  tour of CSBF call the visitors center at 903-729-0271.

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