A gripping NASA adventure

Genesis: This week over Utah, Hollywood helicopter stunt pilots will try to snag a returning spacecraft carrying solar particles.

Medicine & Science

September 06, 2004|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

NASA's adventures have long served as a source of inspiration for Hollywood. Now Tinsletown is set to return the favor.

On Wednesday, a 450-pound capsule bearing precious cosmic treasure - specimens from the sun - will parachute down to the Utah desert. Racing through air to rescue it will be a pair of Hollywood helicopter stunt pilots.

Their delicate task: to snatch the falling capsule and its fragile cargo from the sky with custom-built boom and deliver it safely to anxious scientists on the ground.

"This isn't like Hollywood. I don't get two or three takes," says lead pilot Cliff Fleming, who just spent several weeks chasing the Batmobile through the streets of Chicago in his chopper for Batman 4.

The exquisitely scripted snag, which will be broadcast live on the Internet and televisions around the globe, is the dramatic finale of a $260 million mission by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory called Genesis. Even in a year dominated by sexy expeditions to Mars and Saturn, Genesis stands out.

If successful, it will mark the first time extraterrestrial booty has been spirited back to Earth since 1976, when the Soviet Union's robotic Luna 24 spacecraft returned six ounces of moon dust. More importantly, scientists say, the sprinkling of solar particles aboard Genesis might go a long way toward deciphering riddles about the solar system's origins and early composition. "They're gold," says Genesis project scientist Amy Jurewicz of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The sun contains more than 99 percent of all the matter in the solar system, material that continuously spews from its blistering outer atmosphere as "solar wind." These electrically charged atoms provide a snapshot of the solar system when it was a cloud of dust and gas millions of years ago, Jurewicz says.

Trouble is, solar wind isn't easy to study in earthbound labs. Apollo astronauts managed to trap wind particles on the moon, but scientists have been clamoring for more.

Enter Genesis. Launched August 2001, the spacecraft spent nearly three years literally soaking up the sun in a region beyond the moon's orbit called Lagrange 1. Nearly 1 million miles from Earth, the neighborhood boasts an uninterrupted view of the sun and a stiff solar wind untainted by our planet's magnetic field.

For 850 days, Genesis collected solar particles on small hexagonal tiles composed of ultra-pure silicon, sapphire, gold or diamonds. The substance of each collector was carefully chosen to target specific particles. When the capsule returns, scientists expect the entire apparatus to hold fewer than 20 micrograms of solar material - roughly the weight of a few grains of salt. As tiny as it is, the sample will be the largest ever returned to the planet.

But first it has to get here in one piece.

On Wednesday morning, the capsule will punch through the Earth's atmosphere over Oregon at a blistering 24,700 mph. An onboard parafoil - similar to rectangular parachutes used by skydivers - is programmed to deploy and slow the craft to 8 mph. By that time, it will be high over the restricted airspace of the Utah Test & Training Range, a 16,000-square-mile government plot larger than Maryland.

Even at reduced speed, the delicate wind collectors could shatter if they smack into the desert floor. So NASA decided to resurrect an idea pioneered by the Defense Department almost a half-century ago: the mid-air retrieval.

In 1956, the military released camera-equipped balloons to spy on the Soviet Union and other communist nations. An Air Force C-119 cargo plane, equipped with a hook, plucked several from the sky.

Four years later, a C-119 snagged the first returning Air Force space capsule - surveillance film of the Soviet Union ejected by the Discoverer XIV satellite under the top-secret Corona project. The development of digital cameras whose images can be transmitted directly made such drops unnecessary.

To retrieve Genesis, NASA hired two of Hollywood's most talented chopper pilots, 45-year-old Dan Rudert and the 54-year-old Fleming, a former Marine whose recent movie credits also include Seabiscuit and The Hulk. When he first received a phone call in 1998 describing his assignment, Fleming thought, "You're kidding."

The flight crews have since spent six years choreographing and practicing their mission, which Fleming says is far more preparation than he's used to on a film set. After 16 full-dress rehearsals for Genesis, the pair have a perfect record.

Each pilot will fly a specially-rigged Eurocopter AStar, a heavy-duty helicopter popular with film crews. At about 9,000 feet, Fleming will take the first crack. A two-man crew inside his chopper will help guide him to the capsule and snag it with a 18-foot catch pole. Then they'll reel it in with a Kevlar cable. If the Fleming helicopter muffs the catch, Rudert will swoop in.

The pilots figure they'll have enough time for five attempts. NASA plans to broadcast the event live beginning at 11 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Wednesday. The capture is expected for 12:15 p.m. Viewers can catch it online at www.jpl.nasa.gov/webcast/genesis.

Once the capsule is snagged, the pilot will maneuver it gingerly to the ground. Crewman wearing Kevlar gloves will remove the parafoil and reattach the still-smoldering capsule to the helicopter, which will rush it to a clean room at the U.S. Army's nearby Dugway Proving Grounds to be unsealed.

Because these hard-won solar samples could help prove or scotch cosmic theories for years to come, NASA has made elaborate plans for storing them. The specks of sun will ultimately be trucked to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where they will be kept in a custom-built clean room in Building 31, one floor below the room where space agency stores its 850-pound collection of Apollo moon rocks.

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