Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Genesis Impact

Back in 2004 I was witness to one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. NASA JPL had sent a spacecraft, called Genesis, to sit at the Lagrange point between the Earth and the sun to collect particles from the solar wind. The spacecraft behaved beautifully and returned to Earth in September of 2004. I was able to go to Dugway, UT, and take my father with me, to go sit in the hangar at Michael's Air Field when the spacecraft returned to Earth. The original plan was to have the spacecraft enter the atmosphere and pop out some parachutes, which a helicopter would hook in order to slowly lower the spacecraft to the ground.

Things didn't exactly go as planned. I sat in the hangar that September day with my father, who had retired from Dugway Proving Grounds, and explained to him how it was to work. With all the dignitaries around us, we watched as the capture helicopter (with the Hollywood-based chase helicopter, which was taking awesome footage) took off and headed out over the desert to the entry zone. Retreating into the hangar, we watched on several big screens as the video was transmitted back from the helicopters. There were also plenty of cameras watching the spacecraft re-enter Earth's atmosphere, and we got the first look of the dot in the sky while it was still over Washington state (from western Utah -- those were pretty good optics!). As the cameras continued to track the vehicle through the sky, it seemed to pulse bright then dark then bright again. This was expected because the vehicle was slightly spinning at the time.

As the object got closer and we could resolve it a little better, my father leaned over and asked, "Is that thing tumbling?" In my infinite wisdom, I replied, "No, it can't be." Uh huh. It was tumbling, and it shouldn't have been.

The funny thing was that the commentator, a big cheese from JPL, was also telling people that it was normal to see the coloration flickering like it was. Even after it was time for the parachutes to deploy, the commentator was wrongly assuring everybody, "You wouldn't expect to see it, yet." Clearly something was wrong.

So we watched it come in. It was extraordinary footage to watch as this UFO looking thing tumbled through the sky. And it moved so very quickly that we were shocked when it impacted. Even the mission operators were surprised, as one of the managers asked (after impact had been reported), "Do we have an altitude?" Came the reply, "That's impact, sir. Ground level." The reply was delivered quite deadpan, but you could hear the lilting "You idiot. Didn't you hear me the first time?" tone in the man's voice.

We were stunned. In muted silence we watched as bomb specialists were delivered to the spacecraft to defuse the explosive bolts that hadn't blown to release the parachutes. Their every move around the little capsule, which was firmly embedded in the muddy, cracked sand of the desert, was careful and coordinated -- downright mechanical. Soon after, the party-that-wasn't was over, and we left the base to go home.

It turns out that the builders of the spacecraft had mounted a device upside-down -- the device that was to detect the deceleration of the spacecraft in the atmosphere and determine when to deploy the parachutes. It was one of those mistakes that happen when people are overworked, underfunded, and over-confident. With no parachutes deployed, the vehicle came screaming in and crash-landed. It had been assumed that in order for the scientists to properly analyze the samples, the samples needed to be kept isolated from Earth's environment, and the project had spent an enormous amount of money to set up a sample handling chain to get the samples out of the spacecraft's canister and into the isolated facility where they would be analyzed. Seeing the spacecraft splattered in the sand with the sample capsule cracked open, the samples shattered and mud seeping in, was nothing short of devastating to the scientists.

Luckily, the scientists were still able to get good results from the samples. Ironically, this called into question the need to have spent all that money building the sample handling chain in the first place.

In any case, seeing that tumbling spacecraft and the final impact was a poignant moment in my life. We were all stunned and saddened by the event, and we left with a terrible sinking feeling in our stomaches.

But me -- it's just the kind of guy that I am -- I also secretly harbored some other feeling that I didn't voice for quite a while. It was a feeling that simply said, "Wow, that was pretty cool." I mean, really, how often do you see that kind of thing?!

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