Mission designer is at top of his game Peers are boggled by his orbital dexterity

January 19, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Imagine throwing out three runners in a single, sublime baseball moment.

Now imagine a triple play while the ball, the runners, the bases and the stadium are all in outer space, each moving in its own peculiar orbit.

That's pretty much what Robert Farquhar has promised for NASA's $154 million Comet Nucleus Tour (CONTOUR) mission, scheduled to visit three comets after a July 2002 launch.

The effervescent mission designer at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab plans to rocket CONTOUR into a series of loops tens of millions of miles out in space, each with a snap-the-whip boost from Earth's gravity into the next loop.

Three of those orbits will carry the craft to close encounters with comets. It will buzz Comet Encke in 2003, Comet Schwassmann-Wachmann-3 in 2006 and Comet d'Arrest in 2008, just as the ancient ice balls arrive from deep space to swing around the sun.

And Farquhar says the 1,900-pound spacecraft could remain on call for more comet flybys at least through 2031. Its trajectory, he says with a typically unabashed pride, "is the best one I've ever come up with."

Farquhar is an astrodynamicist, the grand master of celestial maneuvers at APL in Laurel. He and a team of APL scientists and engineers were chosen in the fall to plan the CONTOUR mission, to design and build the spacecraft, and to control its flight. The venture's principal investigator is Cornell University astronomer Joseph Veverka.

"A lot of people are brilliant," Veverka says. "But I have met a small number of individuals who are able to do things that are to me incomprehensible. In this particular field, Bob is one of those people. Somehow, in his head, he can figure out whether one of these trajectories is possible."

But even admiring colleagues add that Farquhar can be an exasperating and impish self-promoter. He indulges penchants for numerology and for mixing science with sentiment in ways that can rile image-conscious NASA brass.

Farquhar regularly finesses his missions so they begin, climax or end on red-letter days, birthdays and anniversaries, or dates involving the number 12.

While planning APL's Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission -- headed for a January 1999 rendezvous with the asteroid Eros -- Farquhar calculated the perfect date to end the mission in 2000.

After NEAR orbits Eros for a year, "he wants to land the sucker on February 14," says an incredulous Donald Yeomans, senior research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Valentine's Day! On Eros, the god of love! This is going way over the top."

Farquhar, 65, can hardly believe he gets paid to have so much fun. A white-haired veteran of several heart attacks, he remains super-charged by his work, with a keen competitive edge.

He doesn't look the part, in open-collared dress shirts, pocket protectors, dress slacks and conservative shoes. His small office is well-ordered and spare.

Off the job, he immerses himself in the postal history of 20th-century Manchuria, writing articles and collecting its stamps. "Really!" he says.

Farquhar grew up on Chicago's South Side and haunted that city's Museum of Science and Industry. He was fascinated by airplane designs. "I was flunking my drafting courses," he says, but he designed and built airplane models.

Farquhar slipped through high school in the bottom 40 percent of his class but graduated from the University of Illinois with honors in aeronautical engineering. Later, he earned a master's in engineering from UCLA and a doctorate in astronautics from Stanford.

Taught to anticipate what might go wrong on an airplane, he is a reluctant, superstitious passenger. "I try not to sit in any seat with 13 on it," he says.

Twelve is OK, though. He has this thing about numbers.

"He'll work and worm until he finds a launch date or an encounter date that happens to be his birthday [Sept. 12], or his wife's. He'll work to see that something is divisible by 12," says Yeomans, who has worked for him.

"I drive some people nuts," Farquhar admits. Faced with an ambiguous choice, he'll round it off at 12. "I don't have to vacillate so much," he explains.

He says the "12" thing began with the 1978 launch of the International Sun-Earth Explorer -(ISEE) satellite. ISEE was the first ever sent to hover in the "L1" point -- the "sun-earth libration point," a million miles sunward from Earth. That's where the gravitational pull on spacecraft by the sun and Earth cancel each other out.

ISEE was launched at 12 minutes, 12 seconds after the hour on Aug. 12, aboard Delta rocket No. 144 (12 squared).

"That just happened," he says.

But it's his doing that the NEAR mission will officially complete its orbital operations at Eros on 2/6/00. "Two times six is 12," he says, a twinkle in his eye. It's also the anniversary of both his marriages.

Veverka says Farquhar's numerological bent is "a game; he knows this is something that will get attention and get some reaction from his colleagues."

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