By Dr. Kenneth L. Atkins
Former Stardust Project Manager
February 7, 2005
Stardust rode the thunder of its Delta rocket into space
on a clear, warm Florida afternoon, February 7, 1999. It's
hard to imagine that her sixth flight birthday is upon us.
The "landfall" at comet Wild 2 is now in her wake and no
longer unknown. The comet's sublimation pits, the vaulting
spires and scarps are unmasked. The spouts of particles
flashing high above the surface have pummeled her shields,
been counted in intensity by the Dust Flux Monitor (DFM),
analyzed by the Cometary and Interstellar Dust Analyzer
(CIDA), and trapped by the Aerogel collector. The face
of the comet has graced the front pages of newspapers and
its mysteries have been described in the prestigious pages
of Science Magazine. A unique new world has burst from
the shroud of enigma. A great dawn for the year of
Stardust has now turned past the last aphelion and is running
before "the wind," gaining speed, as she seems to sense the
final leg home is underway. Over the six years in flight,
her crew has mastered sailing her on the ocean of deep space.
They have met the challenges of being blinded by an
unexplained "fog", losing signal at times, nearly
foundering in the grasp of a massive solar storm, and
navigating the violence of waves of impacting particles
hitting the ship's shields as the Aerogel collector hauled
some aboard. Yet, precisely, they positioned Stardust to
allow for a graceful arc of her camera to make history in
advancing human knowledge. Pictures were taken, data and
samples were captured, and science has been done. It may
have looked easy - but it was not!
Now the precious cargo is safely locked in the hold of the
Sample Return Capsule (SRC). The anticipation of the
Earth-based "welcoming" party is high. What will the
minute essence of actual stardust be like? How will our
self-understanding be impacted by peering deep into
comet particles representing the state of the solar nebula
at the dawn of the solar system? The final chapter
remains to be written with the SRC's delivery to safe
harbor in January 2006.
And so, the days dwindle down. The haunting strains of
the song, Stardust, morph toward September Song. Stardust
quietly ghosts toward the drop zone where delivery of the
SRC will complete her mission. The homecoming will be not
on a warm afternoon like that at the voyage's beginning.
It will likely be in the wee hours of a frosty morning
in the Utah desert. A large portion of her destiny
already accomplished, the final challenge - the SRC's
searing plunge through the upper atmosphere, and the
welcome deployment of her parachute - waits.
So, the adventure continues. Once more, we are reminded
of the risks of voyaging into the unknown, attempting
audaciously to know it. Discovery often requires the
courage to risk failure.
Stardust is closing on her final scene. Nevertheless,
the ship remains "space worthy." The design has proven
robust. The voyage has made crew and ship an experienced
team. The test has been passed in the arena of
spaceflight. During these remaining days, vigilance and
resolve will be increased. We have sailed the course from
Cape Canaveral through Wild 2 encounter.
Again, I celebrate the spacecraft. I congratulate the crew.
Sail on, Stardust! May the "wind" be fair over Utah!
Happy Sixth Birthday!