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A Troubled 'Child' Flies Right : Space: Once, JPL's Galileo was plagued by problems. Now, though, the craft can do no wrong. Four months from the completion of its years-long mission, the project crew is just plain giddy.

August 07, 1995|MICHAEL COLTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is 1 a.m. at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, and Matt Landano is beaming.

The joyous sounds of Beethoven and the popping tops of Coors Cutter fill the control room manned by the deputy mission director for Project Galileo and his colleagues. "Fantastic!" Landano exclaims to no one in particular. "It was near perfect!"

"It" is the Orbital Deflection Maneuver, designed to help push the Galileo spacecraft into its correct flight path. Although it was expected to go smoothly, tensions still ran high.

"You always are nervous, even though you have confidence in the design," says engineering office manager Ralph Reichert. "There is a sigh of relief when the event actually happens." Followed by the hoisting of beers--nonalcoholic, of course.

The maneuver was the latest in a series of successes for the previously troubled spacecraft, which originated at JPL in 1977. Last month, the $1.4-billion Galileo released a probe that is scheduled to parachute into Jupiter's atmosphere on Dec. 7. If all goes well, it will relay weather information for 75 minutes, until it is crushed by the heat and pressure of the hostile environment. Galileo will then begin a two-year orbit of the planet that will allow close flybys of the moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

"Galileo is undoubtedly the most complex and challenging mission ever," says Bob Mitchell, the project's science and sequence office manager.

Among its achievements:

* Getting close to asteroids for the first time and discovering a moon in orbit around an asteroid.

* Being in the right place at the right time for what JPL called "the cosmic collision of the decade"--in which Comet Shoemaker Levy-9 struck Jupiter. Galileo was "the only piece of glass in the universe" with a direct view of the explosive show, says project manager Bill O'Neil.

* Sending a probe into the atmosphere of an outer planet such as Jupiter for the first time to gather more data than any other interplanetary mission.

But Project Galileo has also suffered tremendous setbacks in its 18-year history. Originally scheduled to launch in 1982 for a 1985 arrival at Jupiter, it was delayed by a string of technical problems until May, 1986. And after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in January of that year, the Galileo mission was almost scrapped.

During investigations in the wake of the tragedy, NASA decided it did not want to risk using a potentially explosive Centaur rocket to boost Galileo away from a manned shuttle as had been planned, so the project lost its means of transportation.

After a major redesign, the problem was solved. Galileo would follow a loopy six-year trajectory, using the gravity of Earth and Venus to slingshot toward Jupiter. On Oct. 18, 1989, it was launched.

Then, 1 1/2 years into the journey, the spacecraft's main communications antenna failed to unfurl in a routine maneuver that had been executed successfully more than 60 times in ground tests. It remains only partly open.

The crew scrambled to develop new software that will aid the smaller secondary antenna in collecting and storing information that might have been lost. Still, fewer photos of lower quality (2,000 instead of the planned 50,000) are expected.

According to O'Neil, scientists will analyze the data from Galileo for decades after it is received, using atmospheric information about Jupiter and its moons to learn more about the solar system's history and evolution. In addition, data and images will be loaded onto Galileo's World Wide Web page on the Internet for the public to view.

O'Neil remains confident that Galileo will obtain a "tremendous wealth of data" and avoid the fate of the Mars Observer, a $1-billion JPL satellite that vanished in 1993. After that failure, pressure mounted.

"At the time, I felt that if we were to lose Galileo after the loss of the Observer, it might have spelled death for JPL," says mission director Neal Ausman. "I still feel that we carry a heavy burden. This mission is crucial to space exploration and to the country."

Staffers often work all hours of the night to keep up with the floating piece of glass and metal almost 500 million miles away from Earth. "It's not a job, it's a passion," O'Neil says. "I bet a lot of these people haven't bothered to cash their paychecks for the last few weeks."

For many of them, the anticipation that will culminate this fall has been building for almost 20 years.

"When the probe locks on to the signal from the orbiter, at four minutes after 3 p.m. on Dec. 7, it will be the thrill of a lifetime," says O'Neil, who has worked on Galileo since 1980.

Ausman, who has been with the project since its birth, often uses the words joy and pain when discussing the spacecraft's history. For him, the last 18 years have been analogous to those dedicated to raise a child.

"When Galileo reaches Jupiter and is ready to fulfill its life destiny, it will be about the same sensation for me as when my kids graduated from Cal Poly," he says.

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