With a jazz band playing in the background and more than a thousand glasses raised, Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists and engineers said goodbye to one of their own Sunday, toasting the veteran spacecraft Galileo as it performed a dramatic suicide plunge into the giant planet Jupiter.
With Galileo's gas tank empty after a 14-year space mission, NASA officials decided to destroy the spacecraft to prevent it from accidentally crashing into and contaminating any of Jupiter's moons.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 26, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
Galileo -- An article in the California section on Monday about the Galileo space probe misstated how closely the craft approached the asteroid Gaspra. It was 1,000 miles, not 1,000 feet. The article also incorrectly stated that Jupiter was 318 times larger than Earth. Jupiter's mass is 318 times greater than Earth's. A reference to the craft containing silicone should have read silicon.
The $1.4-billion Galileo was one of the last of the grand NASA missions built at JPL to explore the distant reaches of the solar system.
The stalwart craft had already outlasted its warranty by six years, but surprised its keepers to the end by refusing to go into "safe mode." It kept doggedly studying Jupiter until it was torn apart and vaporized at approximately noon Pacific time by the intense frictional forces and heat in Jupiter's violent atmosphere.
"I can't believe we collected science data all the way in," said project manager Claudia Alexander, wiping away a single tear. "What a machine."
Engineers in JPL's space flight operations center were not able to see Galileo's destruction or tell exactly when it disintegrated, but they were certain that it was gone. The last signal received from the craft reached Earth at 12:43 p.m. Pacific time -- after traveling through space for 52 minutes.
In a time of turmoil in the manned space program after the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia, the death plunge of Galileo was a chance to recall the good old days of NASA when nothing seemed impossible and heroic rescues were the order of the day.
Hundreds of current and retired engineers and scientists who built, fixed and ran the craft during the nearly 30-year project returned to the Pasadena campus Sunday for one last look. There were hugs, some tears, Jupiter-patterned skirts, a musical tribute set to the Rolling Stones and show tune lyrics and a version of a reality TV show dubbed "Survivor: Jupiter." The group also remembered 40 of their team members who had not outlasted Galileo.
It was a rare show of emotion at JPL, where engineers consider the stream of robotic offspring they produce their pride and joy but are fully aware they are merely pieces of metal, wire and silicone. Galileo, though, was different.
The 2-ton spacecraft was always JPL's problem child. It subjected scientists and engineers to crushing disappointments, missed opportunities and innumerable sleepless nights. Despite having a brain less powerful than the average Palm Pilot, the balky craft bloomed to overcome a host of obstacles. It far outlasted its projected lifespan despite the scathing radiation environment that surrounded it.
In eight years circling Jupiter, the craft was able to overturn thinking that the region was cold and geologically dead and revealed two of Jupiter's moons -- ocean-covered Europa and volcanic moon Io -- as compelling destinations for exploration.
"It's like the little engine that could," project manager Alexander said. "Galileo the man, with the force of his personality, changed a lot of opinions. Galileo the spacecraft, by sheer cussedness, did the same thing."
Galileo was nearly doomed from the start by launch delays that almost put Jupiter out of reach. The spacecraft was supposed to ride into space atop a Centaur rocket in 1982 -- a good year for making the trip to Jupiter because it was relatively close. But NASA officials, in an effort to find work for the space shuttle program, decided to launch Galileo from the shuttle.
The decision meant delays. The 1982 launch slipped to 1984, then 1985 and finally May 1986, when the spacecraft was to be launched along with a rocket that would help propel it to the ever-more-distant Jupiter.
That January, with Galileo awaiting its launch window at Kennedy Space Center, the shuttle Challenger exploded overhead. All shuttle flights were grounded. Galileo was unceremoniously shipped back to Pasadena "without any launch vehicle and no way to get to Jupiter," said John Casani, a 48-year-veteran of JPL who was Galileo's project manager at the time.
Launch was rescheduled for October 1989. But with new shuttle safety concerns, the rocket needed to push Galileo the extra distance to Jupiter was banned. It looked like Galileo's only trip would be to the Smithsonian Institution.
Then, JPL engineer Roger Diehl came up with an idea to slingshot Galileo past Venus and then two times around Earth to pick up enough speed for the trip. The detour would take five years instead of 30 months, but it would work.
The next problem occurred on the way to Jupiter, when Galileo was to open the umbrella-shaped high-gain antenna built to send data and images back to Earth.
The antenna refused to open -- no matter what engineers tried. And they tried thousands of times over three years. It was no use. The antenna was jammed.