Back in 2004, when NASA's Genesis return sample capsule tumbled from the sky and slammed into the Utah desert, scientists quite literally had to pick up the pieces of the mission.
Delicate wafers holding precious samples of atoms and ions from puffs of solar wind that Genesis accumulated while lingering at Lagrange Point 1--an area in space between Earth and the Sun--were shattered to bits.
Since the crash landing, researchers have been hard at work pulling science data from the fragments--but it's a far tougher task than originally planned when the $260 million Genesis mission lifted off in August of 2001.
Soon-to-be released findings from a study of the Genesis mishap have brought to light several "lessons learned"--action items that NASA's next sample return mission team for Stardust are embracing for that capsule's upcoming January 15th Utah landing.
The $212 million Stardust mission blasted off in February 1999--more than two years earlier than the Genesis departure. It is coming home next month after a nearly seven-year space trek.
Test, test, test, and test
The lesson learned from Genesis is straightforward, said space engineer Michael Ryschkewitsch who chaired the Genesis Mishap Investigation Board (MIB) and is now deputy center director of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
"It's the same motto that we've all had for years and years and years. Test, test, test, and test...this business is very hard and you can never be too careful. That's not to say that anybody in the process was not careful. There were people that were trying very hard...and sometimes things don't go the way you want them to," Ryschkewitsch told SPACE.com.
Ryschkewitsch said that the MIB findings are to appear in two volumes: One, an engineering autopsy that looks at the causes for the Genesis crash landing itself, the other volume focused on the ground recovery procedures that took place on the capsule's plow-down in Utah on September 8, 2004.
NASA's chief medical officer was not pleased with the initial stages of the ground recovery actions that took place. An MIB subteam was formed to look into this matter, as well as the overall training of personnel and steps taken by post-landing ground teams.
"There was not enough training by all of the people involved so that everybody had the same knowledge," Ryschkewitsch said. In the minutes following impact of the Genesis return sample capsule, he noted, there was a conflict between ground units regarding what team was in charge and what procedures they were operating to.
"Then the people that had been intended to be in charge under the normal operation...took over...and from that point on everything was okay," Ryschkewitsch added.
But what's the multi-million dollar answer to the question of why Genesis took the fall in the first place?
Back in October of 2004, the MIB had quickly identified a likely direct cause of the failure of Genesis' parachute system to open.
The MIB--analyzing the badly crunched Genesis capsule--said the likely cause was a design error that involved the orientation of gravity-switch devices. Those tiny switches sense the deceleration caused by the craft's high-speed entry into the atmosphere--switches that were then to initiate the timing sequence that deployed the capsule's drogue parachute, followed by release of a parafoil, followed by an in-the-air helicopter capture.
That critical sequence did not happen. The capsule smacked into a pre-determined landing site at the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR), a vast and unoccupied salt flat controlled by the U.S. Army and Air Force.
The inappropriate positioning of the gravity-switch devices (g-switches)--upside down--led to the Genesis capsule's less-than-soft touchdown. That wrongly placed piece of hardware was installed in 1998.
The g-switch problem has been identified by the Genesis MIB as the "proximate cause", Ryschkewitsch said. That "most immediate cause" spurred the MIB team to dig back and trace how that happened and how the problem was not addressed prior to launch.
Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver, Colorado designed, built and operated the Genesis spacecraft, as well as the Stardust probe now en route to Earth.
While the fundamental structures between Genesis and Stardust are different, Ryschkewitsch said a great deal of commonality exists in the avionics within the two systems, as well as procedural handling of the entry capsule. Therefore, in some ways, Genesis is a technological look-alike of Stardust, but in other avenues they are dissimilar.
That is why lessons learned from Genesis became a heads-up in some ways for those dealing with the incoming Stardust spacecraft and its prized catch of interstellar and comet particles.
Ryschkewitsch said that Genesis had a great deal more motor controllers to handle the opening of its sample capsule, including the spreading of paddles out into space to collect solar wind--gear that also tucked inward for the ride home.
In the case of Genesis--why g-switch orientation was upside down--Ryschkewitsch said that happened during the process of reconfiguring the electronics from Stardust's design in order to accommodate all of the extra motor controllers onboard Genesis.
"Most of the other functioning pieces of the spacecraft...the timers, deployment mechanisms...are very similar," Ryschkewitsch said.
In their investigations, Ryschkewitsch advised that Stardust underwent a "very specific test" to check g-switch function. That test was not done on Genesis, due to a more complex setup of hardware, making it also a more complicated test program, he said, with the g-switch installation error going unnoticed.
In a kind of full-circle circumspection, the wreckage of the Genesis sample return capsule underwent engineering scrutiny and testing at the Waterton, Colorado facility of Lockheed Martin Space Systems, back where both Genesis--and Stardust--were assembled.
Lockheed Martin supported the MIB, both in examining the recovered hardware and in assembling documentation relevant to the development of Genesis.
"We worked side-by-side with NASA to determine the cause of the Genesis hard landing, and continually review our processes and procedures, putting measures in place to avoid problems in the future," explained Buddy Nelson, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin Space Systems.
"We've had the opportunity to review preliminary iterations of the MIB report and have incorporated 'lessons learned' into our preparations for the Stardust return next month, Nelson told SPACE.com.
"We are hopeful that the recovered samples captured by Genesis will enable researchers to achieve most of their scientific objectives," Nelson said.
No lack of information flow
Meanwhile, Stardust draws closer to Earth.
Spacecraft blueprints, pre-flight photos, and a re-check of the Stardust g-switch test have been thoroughly gone over, Ryschkewitsch said. "We were fully satisfied with the responses to our recommendations...that they had closed them all out. There has been absolutely no lack of information flow."
Ryschkewitsch said that the Genesis incident, like other mishaps in space, involves a chain of events. Processes are set up so that spacecraft designers have multiple chances to catch errors.
"We talk about safety nets one behind the other and behind the other," Ryschkewitsch explained. "There were a number of different things and very specific things that needed to be improved and tightened up."
In specific, there's been a beefing up of Stardust contingency plans, in the event that things unexpected occur during the entry and parachute landing of the sample capsule. Team training was enhanced, Ryschkewitsch said, "to make sure people could react as quickly, efficiently, and as safely as possible."
No doubt, the drama of the Stardust samples coming back to Earth will undoubtedly be a nail-bitter. The capsule carries no transmitter or receiver. Like Genesis, it is on its own internal wherewithal to perform as designed after a lengthy space voyage.
Stardust will undergo a blistering high-speed entry into Earth's atmosphere on January 15th - the fastest human-made object to fireball home as it plunges into the Utah Test and Training Range.
"A great deal of effort has gone into the planning, leading up to the capsule's release...to make sure it's released in exactly the right place, in the right direction, and to make sure it comes down on range," Ryschkewitsch said.
"Fundamentally this is a very, very tough business," Ryschkewitsch concluded. "You've got many, many things that have to go exactly right."