Once almost canceled, FUSE blasts off

400 people watch launch on television at Hopkins, where project was born

June 25, 1999|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

A crowd at the Johns Hopkins University erupted in applause yesterday as a satellite that Homewood scientists spent 17 years dreaming about and five years building finally flew.

More than 400 people jammed the Bloomberg Center auditorium to watch, by television hookup, as a slender Delta II rocket fired its engines and pierced a cloud above Cape Canaveral, Fla. The rocket carried a $200 million telescope developed and built by Hopkins astronomers, with the help of more than 600 people in three countries.

A few hours later, the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer, or FUSE, was circling the Earth. Its stubby solar panels were pointing at the sun and its transmitter was feeding data back to the control room, a small room in a quiet corner of Bloomberg.

"I'm thrilled and relieved," said Arthur F. Davidsen, a Hopkins astronomer. "It's been a long time coming for us."

A rescue plan

Five years ago, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration almost canceled the long-sought FUSE mission during a round of budget cuts. But Hopkins astronomy professor H. Warren Moos and his team rescued it by offering to build it for 60 percent less than original estimates. The key was persuading NASA to let the university develop the telescope with other schools and private companies.

Hopkins built FUSE. But as the launch approached, NASA had five rocket failures in nine months. Delays pushed back the original launch date by more than a month. Rain and thunderstorms lashed the cape for the past couple of weeks.

So when scientists, their families and friends came to Hopkins yesterday to watch the launch, there was a mixture of excitement and dread.

"I'm very nervous," said Edward Murphy, a FUSE scientist. With two children younger than 2, Murphy doesn't get much sleep anyway. But Wednesday night, as his boys snoozed, Murphy still couldn't relax.

"I lay there thinking, `Boy, I hope everything goes OK,' " he said.

Something to sing about

In Schafler Auditorium, as the crowd waited for the late-morning launch, astronomer William P. Blair played talk-show host, bounding up and down the steep stairs, fielding questions from the audience with a cordless microphone. His baseball cap bore a small digital clock that counted down the seconds to the launch.

"What happens if, by accident, the rocket falls in a black hole?" one boy asked.

Replied Blair, "I would be very sad."

Although Blair's colleagues bet him that he didn't have the nerve to do it, he belted out a song about FUSE to the tune of Frank Sinatra's hit "My Way."

" We've even tested for Y2K,

"And now, it's finally here,

"Thank God it's launch day."

Last-minute delay

Just minutes before liftoff, an exasperated NASA official reported that a boat was detected in the Atlantic downrange of the rocket. NASA didn't want one of the Delta's boosters to drop onto someone, so the countdown was halted. Some spectators groaned, others murmured. A few minutes later, NASA announced that the boat had moved out of harm's way, and the countdown resumed.

At 11: 44 a.m., the Delta II engines ignited, creating three pillows of orange flame. As the rocket soared and the first stage dropped off, FUSE seemed on its way. Applause cascaded through the auditorium. "Hoo, hoo!" someone crowed above the din.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we're in orbit!" Blair shouted. The spectators began drifting into Bloomberg's lobby for soda, jelly beans and chocolate-chip cookies.

Moos, speaking by telephone from the cape, said he tried to remain "rational, thinking and coldblooded" through the delayed countdown and tense first 90 minutes of the flight. But he also felt a growing sense of relief and achievement as FUSE performed flawlessly.

"We pushed very hard to make this mission happen," he said. "The whole team really feels very, very excited by it."

FUSE's chief mission is to measure the relative amount of deuterium, a type of hydrogen, in the thin gas clouds that swirl between stars and galaxies. That data could help create a much sharper picture of the early universe. Telescope operations are expected to begin in about three weeks.

After the crowd left, Ted Mueller of Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory in Columbia broke out a bottle of champagne and shared it with a small circle of other project scientists.

"That was a touch of class," Blair said.

Pub Date: 6/25/99

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