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Balloon facility named in honor of Columbia crew

The National Scientific Balloon Facility (NSBF) in Palestine, Texas, operated for NASA by New Mexico State University's Physical Science Laboratory, has been renamed the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in honor of the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

p. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, proposed the name change as a reminder of what the crew of the Columbia stood for: honor, bravery and the quest for knowledge for generations to come.

"This tribute to the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia is in recognition of the dedication and sacrifice made by those brave individuals willing to risk their lives to further humanity's knowledge about space exploration," said Vernon Jones, NASA's senior scientist for suborbital research at NASA's Science Mission Directorate, in announcing the name change.

NMSU's Physical Science Laboratory (PSL) operates the scientific balloon program for NASA, launching about 25 flights a year from sites around the world. Palestine, Texas, and Fort Sumner, N.M., are the primary launch sites; others are in Alaska, Antarctica, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Greenland and Sweden.

The balloons carry scientific payloads weighing up to several thousand pounds to altitudes of about 125,000 feet. Conditions there are similar to those found in space, but the cost of getting there is much less than putting a satellite into orbit.

"At that altitude you are above 99.9 percent of Earth's atmosphere," said Steve Hottman, PSL program manager who oversees the NASA balloon contract. "These balloons provide relatively low-cost access to near-space conditions."

The PSL has had NASA's scientific balloon contract since 1987. In 2003, following a competitive bidding process, the laboratory was awarded a contract valued at $238.7 million to continue operating NASA's scientific balloon facilities and provide engineering support for the program for up to 10 more years.

"We are proud of our long association with NASA's scientific balloon program and we are pleased that NASA has officially changed the name of the balloon facility to honor the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia," Hottman said. "The Columbia crew embodied the spirit of exploration and scientific advancement, and that spirit motivates all that we do at the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility."

On Feb. 1, 2003, the Columbia and crew were lost over the western United States during re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. The 28th and final flight of Columbia (STS-107) was a 16-day mission dedicated to research in physical, life and space sciences.

The balloon facility provides complete balloon operation services and engineering support to the scientific community in the United States and several foreign countries. Operation services include inflating and launching the balloon, tracking and recovery of the payload, tele-command and data retrieval. Engineering support includes design of balloon systems, research in balloon materials, and electronics design.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center's Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va., manages the scientific balloon program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate.

For information about PSL's involvement in the balloon program visit http://www.psl.nmsu.edu/aas/ballooning.php.