How NASA en­gi­neers mourn a space­craft’s death

The Buffalo News - - NATIONAL NEWS - By Deb­o­rah Net­burn

LA CANADA FLIN­TRIDGE, Calif. – They called it a wake, but the loved one they had come to mourn wasn’t a per­son.

It was the Cassini space­craft, the ro­botic ex­plorer that had spent the last 13 years un­lock­ing the mys­ter­ies of Saturn, its rings and its many moons.

Soon af­ter Cassini va­por­ized like a shoot­ing star in the Satur­nian sky, about 175 mem­bers of the mis­sion’s en­gi­neer­ing team gath­ered in an airy ban­quet room at the La Canada Flin­tridge Coun­try Club to eu­lo­gize their space­craft.

There were toasts and singing. But there were some misty eyes as well.

“You have this great pride in all you were able to ac­com­plish,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project man­ager at NASA’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory. “But it’s still an emo­tional loss.”

When it comes to space­craft, even sci­en­tists get sen­ti­men­tal.

These fly­ing hunks of me­tal call their care­tak­ers in the mid­dle of the night, in­fu­ri­ate them with their quirks and daz­zle them with amaz­ing dis­cov­er­ies about the uni­verse.

So is it any won­der that when their time has passed, their hu­man han­dlers will feel a sense of loss?

Cassini’s in­stru­ments were work­ing just fine at the time of its demise; the prob­lem was that it was run­ning out of fuel. Mis­sion plan­ners wor­ried that if they didn’t crash the or­biter into the ringed planet, it might col­lide with one of Saturn’s ice moons and con­tam­i­nate it. That would com­pli­cate fu­ture ef­forts to search for signs of life there.

The team had seven years to pre­pare for the space­craft’s end on Sept. 15. But that didn’t make it easy to say good­bye.

Some of the as­sem­bled mourn­ers had been with the mis­sion since be­fore it blasted into space in 1997.

The ban­quet room was booked for five hours. It wasn’t enough.

When a space­craft dies, it’s not just the ex­plo­ration that comes to an end. It’s also the end of an in­tense col­lab­o­ra­tion here on Earth.

“Peo­ple put so much of their heart and ef­fort into what we used to call the care and feed­ing of the space­craft,” said Ei­lene Theilig, a plan­e­tary ge­ol­o­gist who worked as the project man­ager for the Galileo mis­sion to Jupiter at JPL and is now an or­dained min­is­ter in Fort Worth, Texas. “It is such a team ef­fort, and when it goes away, you are deal­ing not only with the loss of the space­craft, but also the loss of the team.”

Ni­co­las Al­to­belli, a sci­en­tist at the Euro­pean Space Agency, bid farewell to two space­craft in a 12-month pe­riod.

In ad­di­tion to serv­ing as the ESA’s prin­ci­pal sci­en­tist for Cassini, he worked on the agency’s Rosetta mis­sion to the comet known as 67P/Churyu­mov– Gerasi­menko. Af­ter a dozen years in space, Rosetta crash­landed on the comet’s aus­tere sur­face in Septem­ber 2016.

Work­ing on a flag­ship space mis­sion is like be­ing on a ship that has been sent to ex­plore a new world, he said.

“Every­one is kind of uni­fied by this one ob­ject, and that’s the beauty of it,” he said. “But when it’s over, you re­al­ize that it’s not the ship dis­ap­pear­ing that hurts the most, it’s the dis­man­tling of the crew.”

Some­times the sense of loss be­gins even be­fore the mis­sion ends.

Todd Bar­ber, Cassini’s lead propul­sion en­gi­neer, found him­self un­ex­pect­edly over­come by emo­tion dur­ing Cassini’s last weeks. He had just com­pleted a rou­tine re­port de­tail­ing how much pro­pel­lant was prob­a­bly left in the space­craft’s thrusters.

“I’ve done al­most 3,000 of those re­ports over the past 20 years,” he said. “When I fin­ished my very fi­nal one I just burst into tears.”

Jo Pitesky also found her­self feel­ing in­creas­ingly dis­traught as the mis­sion’s fi­nal days drew near. A sci­ence plan­ner for the Cassini mis­sion, she reached out to a friend for ad­vice on how to honor the mis­sion’s end.

That friend, Deb­o­rah Silver, hap­pens to be a rabbi.

“It was prob­a­bly the weird­est pas­toral coun­sel­ing re­quest she ever got,” Pitesky said.

To help Silver un­der­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of the event, Pitesky sent her an an­i­ma­tion that dra­ma­tized Cassini’s fi­nal, un­winnable bat­tle against the at­mos­phere of Saturn.

“Even peo­ple who have noth­ing to do with the mis­sion watch that video and cry,” she said.

Silver was moved, and ea­ger to help. In the days be­fore the fi­nal sig­nal came down, she wrote to Pitesky about a se­ries of Sab­bath prayers in which wor­shipers take a poetic trip through the cos­mos as a way of singing God’s praises.

There is an an­cient Midrash (in­ter­pre­tive text) that sug­gests that ev­ery as­pect of the cos­mos – heav­ens, Earth, even in­di­vid­ual an­i­mals – is con­stantly singing its own verse from the He­brew Bi­ble.

“Jo and I spoke about what verses Cassini might have sung,” Silver said.

One that came to mind was Isa­iah 40:26:

“Lift your eyes on high and see: who cre­ated these?

“He who brings out their host by num­ber, call­ing them by name;

“By the great­ness of his might and be­cause he is strong in power, “Not one is miss­ing.” “When she sent this to me I could feel the tears welling up again,” Pitesky said. “I’m not a bi­b­li­cal lit­er­al­ist, but it’s al­ways a lovely thing when you find a piece of mu­sic or lit­er­a­ture or any­thing that gives you that kind of echo of what you are feel­ing.”

Of course, every­one mourns dif­fer­ently. And some less than oth­ers.

“I think I’ll start miss­ing it, but I don’t miss it yet,” said Julie Web­ster, Cassini’s chief en­gi­neer at JPL who was charged with mak­ing sure the space­craft stayed in good work­ing order. “I’m still in the re­cov­ery phase of ‘I’m so glad this thing isn’t call­ing me in the mid­dle of the night.’ “

Then there are folks like Bon­nie Bu­ratti, prin­ci­pal sci­en­tist and su­per­vi­sor of the Comets, As­teroids and Satel­lites Group at JPL. She be­came so at­tached to the ro­botic ex­plorer that she tried to dampen her pain with a lit­tle re­tail ther­apy the day be­fore the fi­nal plunge.

“I bought a new car,” she said. “I didn’t re­al­ize it was the sub­sti­tute when I was buy­ing it, but when I went to pick it up I re­al­ized what I was do­ing.”

The new car is a silver Paci­fica hy­brid min­van, and Bu­ratti said it re­minds her of Cassini. She named it Cassie. Comet re­searcher Paul Weiss­man worked on both Galileo and Rosetta dur­ing his ten­ure at JPL. He said see­ing them end is like los­ing a mem­ber of your fam­ily – but work­ing on mis­sions that never got off the ground is worse.

“That was more hurt­ful,” said Weiss­man, who has ex­pe­ri­enced that pain twice. “We put in a lot of ef­fort and they didn’t hap­pen be­cause of pol­i­tics or fi­nances or petty per­son­al­i­ties. I’m still very bit­ter about that.”

And then there are the ones that make it to space but meet an un­timely end. Con­sider the Mars Ob­server, which launched in 1992 and ex­ploded just a few days be­fore it was sup­posed to be­gin or­bit­ing the Red Planet.

“That was a very heavy time around here,” said Web­ster, who was telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions lead for that mis­sion. “Twenty years later I was fi­nally ready to give a talk about what hap­pened. It was like a group purge.”

Pitesky said that while there are feel­ings of grief and loss for Cassini, there is not a sense of tragedy.

“It’s like how it’s dif­fer­ent when a young adult dies, rather than some­one who had the full­ness of time,” she said.

It also helps that JPL has a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence with the emo­tions tied to the end of a mis­sion. Maize said the Cassini lead­er­ship team reached out to the lab’s em­ployee as­sis­tance pro­gram to get ad­vice on how to help those who might be strug­gling with the tran­si­tion to postCassini life.

“Among the many sug­ges­tions were that we get peo­ple to­gether soon af­ter the event,” he said. Which is ex­actly what they did.

Tri­bune News Ser­vice

Jo Pitesky, right, holds a model of the late Cassini probe as she joins fel­low en­gi­neer Todd Bar­ber in mis­sion con­trol cen­ter at Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory in Pasadena, Calif.

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