This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2004, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
DUGWAY PROVING GROUND - A NASA capsule carrying pieces of the sun hurtled out of control before smashing into Utah's west desert Wednesday, an almost-200-mph crash landing that could reverberate through the nation's troubled space agency.
After five years of training for the expected midair catch, Hollywood stunt pilots were reduced to flying over the crash site to get a closer look at the damaged capsule, which was carrying solar particles
NASA officials were trying to determine why the parachute failed to deploy after the capsule came screaming into the atmosphere over Oregon at almost 25,000 mph. Scientists wondered how much of their precious cargo can be salvaged.
"What you have here is a component failure," said Chris Jones, director of solar-system exploration for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "We don't know which one."
A parafoil, which is like a parachute, also failed to emerge. The parafoil would have slowed the capsule to about 20 mph as it spiraled down over the U.S. Air Force's Utah Test and Training Range.
Instead, the 450-pound, 5-foot diameter capsule slammed into the ground at nearly 200 mph. Sticking halfway out of the ground, the probe resembled a crashed UFO.
"The capsule was obviously not designed to withstand that kind of impact," Jones said.
It was another in a line of high-profile problems for NASA. Even before last year's Columbia space shuttle disaster, a pair of probes headed to Mars - in 1998 and 1999 - disappeared shortly after reaching the planet. The Genesis mishap could renew debate about whether NASA's "faster, better, cheaper" philosophy toward science missions works.
But NASA scientists stressed that the $264 million mission is not a complete failure, as they hope that some data can be salvaged from the wreckage. The particles of the sun, gleaned from solar wind, could offer new insights into the origins of the solar system.
As scientists figure out what's left of the mission, NASA plans to form a Mishap Investigation Board within 72 hours. Engineers are already trying to identify the problem.
"We're going to embark on a very intensive data review," Jones said.
At a hangar on Dugway's Michael Army Air Field, a crowd of media and VIPs gathered to watch the catch on closed-circuit TV. Applause broke out as a ground camera caught the first, blurry glimpse of the probe in the upper atmosphere at 9:55 a.m.
But as the capsule came into focus, it appeared to be tumbling. The hangar fell into stunned silence as people began to realize there was a serious problem. Moments later, it crashed.
The news was slow to sink in for Dan Rudert, one of the stunt pilots scheduled to help with the midair grab.
"We had three calls before we could accept the fact that the chute never opened," said Rudert, who is a Salt Lake City native. "It was disbelief and disappointment."
Roger Wiens, a Los Alamos National Laboratory researcher who helped design several instruments for Genesis, shook his head as he saw the grounded capsule.
"Seeing it come down is a lot better than losing it," he said.
The half-buried capsule held a series of delicate collector plates that were exposed to various types of solar wind. NASA officials said the outer capsule had cracked open, and that the inner science payload was also breached. But even a can full of broken plates should be salvageable. The main concern now is that gases from the atmosphere and salt could contaminate the solar samples.
"It's actually quite surprising how little damage there was," said Roy Haggard, of Vertigo, a company that helped plan the midair retrieval.
Researchers said even broken pieces would still house their precious atom-sized solar particles, simply leaving scientists with an unexpected jigsaw puzzle.
With various collector materials made in differing thicknesses, scientists are optimistic they can figure out what type of solar samples they recovered.
"We don't know the condition of the collectors that hold the science," said Andrew Dantzler, solar system division director for NASA.
He said that the crash-landing was not the worst-case scenario. The probe could have veered off course and slammed into a mountainside, breaking into pieces.
Jones said while a midair parafoil recovery was preferred, a no-chute crash landing was an anticipated possibility. The crash set a contingency plan into motion to assess the damage and start recovering the science.
Don Sevilla, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said it appeared that pyrotechnic charges designed to release the parachute failed to fire. A ground team was set to decide whether to retrieve the entire capsule or just pull out the science payload.
Bob Corwin, a Lockheed Martin researcher involved in the project, said a faulty sensor or an electronics problem could be the culprit.
The collector plates probably will be moved to a clean room by today. The samples then will be secured for a truck ride to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.