NSSL1 was the first of several large mobile laboratories (NSSL2, NSSL3 and so forth), liberally festooned with many kinds of sensing equipment and antennae, that have been used in field experiments at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in the 1980s and 1990s. After nearly 2 decades of operation, NSSL1 is still ready to roll for the next field program, having already participated in (and refurbished for) such projects as the Sound Chase (1981), 1982-1986 NSSL Spring Programs, COHMEX (1986), Doplight-87, NEXRAD IOT&E2 (1989), SW.A.M.P. (1990-96 off and on) and V.O.R.T.EX. (1994-95).
NSSL1 has been the platform for hundreds of M-CLASS balloon sounding launches in its lifetime. Specially shielded black-and-white video cameras mounted on top have taken some classic intercept footage, including the infamous 17 May 81 "Tornado passing right in front of us!" scene. It has always carried tens of thousands of dollars in computers, radios and other electronics, custom-installed to fit the needs of each experiment. During the NSSL Spring Programs, it was also extensively used for lightning and storm electricity studies, being fitted with electric-field sensors.
Here is a passage from the Operations Plan of project V.O.R.T.EX. that illustrates a major concern of all those who passed through NSSL1's doors through the decades:
Note that the biggest hazard once on site and while out of the mobile labs will be lightning. Even when lightning is not very close, do not lean or touch vehicle while outside it. You can receive a painful and possibly dangerous electrical shock from electromagnetic coupling of the lightning. The team leader should be prepared to abort a launch in the event that lightning strikes too close. This is a judgement call. At times the fastest way to abort a launch is to launch the balloon, get everyone in the vehicle, and then try to acquire data from the sonde as soon as possible. If this not viable because of your being too early in the prelaunch preparation, cut the sonde off the balloon and puncture the balloon. (Note balloon crew members should carry easily accessible and sharp knives for such emergencies.) Then get inside the vehicle. The overall recommended procedure is to minimize exposure to lightning by remaining inside vehicles as much of the time as possible. When your task allows it, you can reduce your risk of injury from lightning by squatting down on the balls of your feet. Remember the published small probability of being struck by lightning grossly understate your risk when you are standing beneath a thunderstorm.
Brian "bc" Curran, who drove NSSL1 on many occasions in the early/mid '80s and had a few close encounters of the St. Elmo's kind, types:
It's odd that recently I have had several dreams of being allowed to chase once again in NSSL1. To think a bunch of physics majors with some minor help from meteorology students took a 15 passenger vehicle from GSA and turned it into a chaseworthy platform in two months...ah, that was a real treat!
I'd have to say the two strongest memories I have of the NSSL1 in it's second incarnation (1986-1992) was driving *between* two tornadic circulations on US62 between LTS and FSI on 14 May 1986 (and damn near driving into a tornado two hours later and nearly rolled by a 100+ knot hot microburst near Joy, TX an hour after that).