Wednesday, July 8, 2009

When Genesis Fell to Earth

Astronomy Picture of the Day is one of the first sites I visit with my morning coffee. Their post this past Sunday, though, hit me in the gut with something more than the usual sense of wonder that starts my day.

A flying saucer from outer space crash-landed in the Utah desert in 2004 after being tracked by radar and chased by helicopters. No space aliens were involved, however. The saucer, pictured above, was the Genesis sample return capsule, part of a human-made robot Genesis spaceship launched in 2001 by NASA itself to study the Sun. The unexpectedly hard landing at over 300 kilometers per hour occurred because the parachutes did not open as planned. The Genesis mission had been orbiting the Sun collecting solar wind particles that are usually deflected away by Earth's magnetic field. Despite the crash landing, many return samples remained in good enough condition to analyze and research is ongoing. So far, discoveries include new details about the composition of the Sun and the effects of the solar wind on unprotected material.

You see, I actually saw Genesis crash.

I was lucky enough to spend that morning down the road at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in their auditorium with a hundred-or-so other people watching the live feeds from the retrieval helicopters and the ground cameras. My wife and I sat four rows back from a stage holding two of the main investigators walking us through everything as it happened, a full-size model of a Voyager probe only a few feet to my left and a mock-up of Cassini off to my right. Even today, this was about as close to geek-boy heaven as I've ever come, and one of the things I'd been dreaming about doing once I moved to Southern California from back east.

If you've ever wondered how spontaneous the cheers and cries in those rooms really are, they're everything they seem to be. Even in an auditorium full of spectators, the adrenaline was just incredible. And when the ground tracking camera caught sight of Genesis coming down, the auditorium literally shook.

It was painfully obvious, too, that something was seriously wrong. Even with the low murmur that kept building the longer we watched, you could hear the individual voices rising above it from retired JPL people, space junkies like myself, you name it.

"Is that a wobble?"

"This doesn't look right."

"It's tumbling."

"Isn't that the mortar for the drogue chute? We shouldn't be able to see that."

"This picture's too clear and sharp."

And then, as all of us gasped like a single person kicked in the stomach, one other voice shouted, "Jesus! Was that the ground?!"

It was stunned silence after that. And we spent the next hour or so hardly moving from our seats, as everyone tried to figure out why the parachute system had failed and the retrieval helicopters closed in and gave us better and better views of the cracked sample retrieval capsule half-buried in the dirt.

You couldn't help but feel for those guys on the stage. They had spent the last six or seven years working toward this very moment, and you could see them struggling to keep the hope that the sample container itself hadn't been breached. It was heart-breaking.

Even with all of that, I wouldn't have missed being there for anything. If for no other reason, it was worth everything to see all the eight- and nine- and ten-year-olds who were brought there, too. Because even with the crash-landing, you could just look in their eyes and see them getting hooked on space as you watched.

Someday, they'll be my age. And they'll still be hooked.