The Launch Of A 7-Year Asteroid Mission

In his book, the principal investigator of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission describes the frantic morning of final checks before the launch.

The following is an excerpt from The Asteroid Hunter: A Scientist’s Journey to the Dawn of Our Solar System by Dante Lauretta.

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The Asteroid Hunter: A Scientist's Journey to the Dawn of Our Solar System


On the morning of launch day, I had fifteen minutes to myself. That’s how long it took to drive from Cocoa Beach, where we were staying with our families, to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. I had carefully assembled a playlist for this day, despite knowing there would be scant time to enjoy it. It began — obviously — with Rush’s “Countdown.” With the midmorning sun overhead and the Atlantic Ocean glittering beside me, my pulse sped up to keep time with the
song’s synthesizers. Geddy Lee sang, “Lit up with anticipation / we arrive at the launching site.” As I drove past the now- familiar Florida beaches, I thought of Mike. His fondness for the beach was well- known, and we’d had a fun- filled week together at a science conference in Rio de Janeiro. He would have loved to be here today.

To get to the rocket control tower, I passed through a security checkpoint, where a man with a machine gun glanced at my ID and waved me in. I smiled as I pulled past the entrance sign, which today read, “Go OSIRIS- REx!” The mission logo filled another nearby billboard. Just ahead, I could see the nose of the Atlas V rocket pointing up to space like a baseball player calling a home run. I imagined OSIRIS- REx tucked inside, waiting anxiously to fulfill its destiny. I pulled into the parking spot labeled Principal Investigator, and snapped a photo of the plaque for posterity. The United Launch Alliance, the private launch company that would send OSIRIS-REx into space, had been nothing but hospitable. They certainly treated me like someone who paid 183 million dollars for one of their rockets, anyway. During our four- month sojourn on the Space Coast, residents had been even more welcoming, approaching us in restaurants and grocery stores, impressive in their depth of knowledge and enthusiasm about the mission. A stylist at a barbershop in Cocoa Beach recognized me immediately, peppering me with nonstop questions about Bennu, the spacecraft, and the launch during my trim. After that, I started carrying commemorative pins to hand out.

But for all the support and fanfare, the last few weeks had been full of reminders that missions like ours can and do fail, and often at the very last, most heartbreaking minute — on the launchpad.

Six days before launch, I was in a conference room at the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building preparing for our flight readiness review, the meeting for launch teams to discuss last-minute concerns. Sitting there, my attention was drawn to the emblems that adorned the walls, logos of the hundreds of spacecraft that NASA had launched during the past half century. A few of the logos were printed in black and white, not in vibrant color like the others, and I tried to figure out what they might have in common. When I saw the monochrome logo of Glory— a 2011 Earth- observing satellite whose rocket malfunctioned minutes into flight and plummeted into the Pacific Ocean— it hit me: the grayed- out logos commemorated failures. How would OSIRIS- REx be memorialized? I wondered. In celebratory color, or solemn black and white?

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As if the universe were reading my mind, the table began to tremble. A low rumble growled beneath our feet. The roar grew louder, culminating in the stomach- turning sound of an explosion, a noise that’s terrifying in any cir-cumstance, but even more so when your spacecraft is next door. Almost every cell phone in the room buzzed against the table. I hesitated and then turned mine over. “SpaceX just blew up on the pad!” the text message read. Slowly, my colleagues and I pieced together what had happened: A mile east of the launchpad, where members of our team were putting the finishing touches on OSIRIS- REx, the SpaceX Falcon 9 had blown up during a routine test. The rocket collapsed in on itself, igniting a massive fire. Then, the two-hundred-million- dollar Facebook communications satellite it was carrying hit the ground with its own load of fuel, setting off a series of secondary blasts. From the parking lot, I watched billows of black smoke drift toward our pad, pushed by the relentless sea wind. Word spread that no one was hurt, and Air Force support were on their way to make sure OSIRIS- REx was safe. People began to head inside and resume the meeting, like so many office workers returning to their day after a fire drill. I followed, doing my best to ignore my nerves, crackling like live wires.

The flight readiness review reconvened and concluded with a unanimous “Go” decision, an occasion that shouldn’t have been anything but triumphant. Instead, I left worried and grim. A week later, I stood in awe as the twenty- one-story-t all Atlas V 411 rocket emerged from the cocoon of the vertical integration facility and rolled past me on its way to the launchpad. It was a strange- looking launch vehicle, with only one booster strapped to its side. I’d spent lots of time in the past few days explaining its configuration to reporters, who saw it and asked how it wouldn’t spin out of control. (In a nutshell: The main engine tilts inward to redirect its own thrust and allow Atlas to rise perfectly straight into the sky.) Before I headed inside to the control center, I gave a nod to the words painted on the side of the rocket: “Colleague, Friend, Visionary,” in honor of Mike.

The launch window would open at precisely 7:05 p.m. when the path between Earth and Bennu aligned with cen-tral Florida. After it left the pad, Atlas V would accelerate to 25,000 miles per hour, defying the gravitational pull of the Earth. Fifty- five minutes after launch, the rocket would release OSIRIS- REx, placing the spacecraft into orbit around the sun. Parts of the rocket would fall back to the Earth into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, while the rest would remain floating through space. OSIRIS- REx would then travel around our solar system for a year, so it could return to our planet and use Earth’s gravity field to propel it one billion miles to Bennu. I took a seat at my designated console. Before me were dozens of windows and menus and widgets, all obsessively keeping tabs on the myriad of rocket subsystems necessary to launch into space— aka nerd heaven. Kate, the kids, and the rest of our families were viewing the launch from the rooftop several floors above me in the Atlas Spacecraft Operations Center. As much as I’d have loved to watch their eyes as the spacecraft ascended into the sky, I was also grateful for the relative calm of the control center and this comfortable chair.

There had been moments of reprieve in the last few weeks— cookouts with my colleagues, playing on the beach with my boys— but mostly it had been a blur of overstimulation, like a wedding where I had no control of the guest list. There was even a signature cocktail, the Blue Bennu— tequila, blue curaçao, and fruit juice— served at the bar at the Hilton Hotel where many of our guests were staying, and party favors: commemorative coins, stickers, patches, posters, and pins.

My mom and her husband had flown down from Arizona. My brothers were here with their wives and children, and my sister- in-law brought her fifth grade science class on an unprecedented field trip to the Kennedy Space Center. Just like with my actual wedding, I felt torn in a million different directions, worried I wasn’t enjoying the moment enough. I also had work to do— lots of it. Lectures. Interviews. Appearances. I’d learned that being the principal investigator of a mission about to launch was a lot like being its principal cheerleader. For the most part, I enjoyed the opportunity to brag about our team and talk shop about OSIRIS- REx, but I couldn’t deny how exhausted I was. The day before launch, on my way to a University of Arizona alumni event, I had walked straight into a glass door. Luckily, no one saw and the only thing I had injured was my pride.

Now, the only thing left to do was to send our space-craft on its way. I put on my headset, which was filled with the voices of the launch team, stationed in front of screens around the world, as well as the public audio feed. It sounded like a dinner party; dozens of conversations all happening at once. I rolled up my sleeves and smoothed my tie, white with red- and- blue OSIRIS- REx logos checkered across it. At first, I kept my eyes trained on the cryogenic liquid oxygen levels, the culprit in last week’s SpaceX explosion. Just as my eyes settled on the gauge, a major problem emerged near the rocket’s second- stage oxidizer tank, which was actively being filled with highly explosive liquid oxygen rocket fuel. I tried to shake last week’s image of black smoke out of my mind. At 6:00 p.m., with around an hour remain-ing until the opening of the launch window, the liquid oxygen tank reached flight level and I felt a pound of worry slide off my shoulders. At 6:35 p.m., the 45th Weather Squadron presented their final briefing, indicating a 90 percent chance of acceptable weather. Weather readiness was a “go.”

At 6:55 p.m., the spacecraft transitioned to internal power, running on its own batteries for the first time as the “umbilical cord” to ground power was cut. I pressed a fist to my lips as the final “go, no- go” poll unfolded in my head-phones. It was a string of “go” across the board.

At 7:01 p.m., the terminal countdown began at T minus four minutes. On the launchpad, Atlas V’s propellent tanks were pressurized and the flight termination system, tasked with destroying the vehicle in case of a potentially explosive emergency, was armed.

“Range Green,” came the call at T minus one minute, meaning everything was still a “go.”
“Launch director— ” said the lead system engineer.
“You have permission to launch.”

With launch less than one minute away, I became perfectly still. I silently thanked the thousands
of people who had worked together over the last twelve years to design this mission and this
spacecraft, the tens of thousands of people gathered today in Florida, and the hundreds of
thousands of people who submitted their names to be etched onto OSIRIS- REx, joining us in
spirit on our journey to Bennu.

“T minus twenty- five. Status check— ”
One more chance to call it off.
“Go Atlas.” The first stage was ready to launch.
“Go Centaur.” The second stage was prepared to take over when called upon.
And finally, the words I had waited a decade to hear: “Go OSIRIS- REx.”
And then it happened, just like in the movies, just like in the Rush song.
“T minus ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three— ”

At T minus 2.7 seconds, the Atlas V’s main engine roared to life, generating 860,000 pounds of thrust from its twin nozzles. I held my breath. I closed my eyes. I felt my consciousness expand beyond the room, beyond the facil-ity, beyond the confines of place and time. I felt the waves of billowing smoke, the heat of the fire erupting from the engines, the launch vehicle gently,
perfectly lifting from the pad. I felt my body rising alongside OSIRIS- REx, soaring into space together on our cosmic expedition. I did not hear the final seconds tick away.

“Liftoff of OSIRIS- REx,” the public audio feed announced. “Its seven- year mission: to boldly go to the asteroid Bennu and back.”

The whole thing was flawless. Beautiful. The smoke produced by burning liquid oxygen and kerosene built a tower to the sky. The rocket disappeared into the heavens.

“Fare thee well, my friend,” I whispered. OSIRIS- REx was on its way.

Excerpted from THE ASTEROID HUNTER: A Scientist’s Journey to the Dawn of our Solar System ©2024 Dante Lauretta and reprinted by permission from Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group.

Meet the Writer

About Dante Lauretta

Dr. Dante Lauretta is a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona, the principal investigator of the OSIRIS REX mission, and author of The Asteroid Hunter. He’s based in Tucson, Arizona.

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