Giant Space Balloon Breaks Loose

ALICE SPRINGS, Australia, April 29 (UPI) — Wind ripped a multimillion-dollar NASA space balloon from its mooring in the Australian outback, overturning a car and just missing a crowd of spectators.

No one was injured in the accident, but almost the entire scientific payload — including a $10 million Gamma-ray-measuring Nuclear Compton Telescope developed by the University of California, Berkeley — was destroyed, Balloon Launch Station Director Ravi Sood told the Australian Broadcasting Corp., which caught the debacle on video.

The gondola beneath the car-size balloon stumbled along the ground more than 1,600 feet, forcing spectators to run for their lives, as the balloon was pushed by the same strong winds that had ripped it from its mooring as it was being filled with air in preparation for launch, the TV video showed.

“We were sitting in our car and preparing to move it out of the way and we were actually about a foot (away) of being wiped out,” Betty Davies of Alice Springs told the broadcaster.

“I think if it hadn’t have been for the other gentleman’s car being there we’d have been somewhere else by now,” she said.

The balloon was commissioned by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration to loft the telescope 25 miles into the stratosphere from Alice Springs, in the Central Australian desert, where it would capture data about astrophysical phenomena and high-frequency Gamma rays, mission officials said.

An attempt will be made to launch a similar balloon next month, officials said.

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