Balloon Launches

Feb 5, 2005
Cambridge, MN
I'm told that a "lubed-up" balloon will cause it to explode prematurely. That's why you don't want to touch it with your hands.

Although this sounds sexual, it apparently is true. But I have no idea why.

Then again, I don't know why you'd want to coat a balloon with Vasaline before launching it. :)

any kind of balloon?

I don't know. He was referring to a sounding balloon, but I suppose it could apply to any balloon rising through the atmosphere. Or perhaps it doesnt matter about the increasing loss of pressure. I really don't know why it would cause it to explode prematurely.

He said that they are coated in a dust or powder of some sort.
This is exactly right - the balloons are made of latex and touching them with your bare hands can very easily weaken them. This is because the oil from your skin can weaken the latex. This in turn can prematurely weaken the balloon and cause it to break early. It is for this reason that the individuals filling and preparing the balloons for launch must be extra careful when conducting these activities. The balloon is actually almost never touched, but if it is, it's by gloves or the like.
In 1999 Shannon and I did about 25 launches for NSSL out in Arizona.... we handled the balloons with bare hands and the soundings all terminated above 100 mb (i.e. no serious problems).

Now that I read this I'm sure we could have been a little more careful, but nobody warned us at the time.

I could see how human oils (that sounds gross too) would degrade latex over time. But in the short time from filling to ascent? I have a hard time believing that, unless you were secreting some type of battery acid!

Handling them in storage might be a different story, but I imagine all the balloons are individually sealed. Of course, I have no experience with this.

Perhaps the atmospheric pressure changes and colder temps as the balloon rises aides in the deterioration. Therefore the added stresses on the balloon make the impact of the oil more dramatic.

Of course I have no clue either and can only speculate.

That's an interesting observation, Tim. It doesn't really surprise me as it seems that the balloons are fairly durable. My prior statements are based on the fact that we are taught not to handle the balloons with bare hands in our day to day operations. This is something taught by the official upper air observation guides, which base their reasoning on what was previously mentioned.