“This is the longest five minutes of my life,” Church says.
The image comes without warning despite our having been warned, despite our having been waiting for more than 30 minutes now. It appears first on Church’s laptop, and we know this because she shrieks and laughs.“Oh my god! Wow!” Though it is on her computer, it is not, for whatever reason, on the massive projection at the front of the room, where it should be. Every seat in the room empties as though a fire has broken out, and scientists and engineers fall over themselves to see what she is seeing. There is a unanimous gasp.
On her screen is the planet Earth, real and true.
Some spontaneously clap, for our home planet and for the team, and the clapping grows to applause. We have to see it on the big screen. This room of engineers—men and women who built a giant space robot with the grace of a hummingbird—are reaching for the HDMI cable to plug it into Church’s computer, and six distinct hands are trying to help, lifting the laptop and guiding the cable and finding the port, and they’re trying to get it attached so we can see it on the big screen. They’re trying to force it into the USB port, and it is gleeful chaos until the technology is at last managed. The HDMI cable is negotiated, and the image isn’t even on the screen yet, and already there is more applause and cheering at this technical triumph, we’re doing this thing, it is happening, and the screen is blue and then, at once, there it is.
“Wow, you guys ...”
“Those are a lot of clouds.”
The room lapses into a silence, and the men and women exhibit the sort of reverence that causes one to step forward rather than back, to know more rather than believe.
“I can see clouds!”
“Is that Australia?”
“Is that North America?”
“Is that us?”
A scientist steps up with another open laptop, and on its display is an image of what planners and simulations had expected to see both in terms of image and position. He holds it up to the projection screen. The image is dead-on. Suddenly they are again scientists, asking about orientations and exposure times of the camera instrument, and they’re asking if it has populated in the software used internally by the OSIRIS-REx team, and it has. This first image, so meticulously planned, has set the tone of the entire mission. There was no guarantee that all the work would pay off, and yet there Earth is.
* * *
The following morning, a walk through the Michael Drake building reveals heads in every office and cubicle craned over keyboards. Lauretta is bowled over by the data returned. “We’re going to get a lot of science out of this,” he says. “We’re going to write a few papers. That’s a nice surprise. We looked at what we got and the data quality is phenomenal.”
Because this is OSIRIS-REx’s first return of data from an actual planetary body, the first fissures in team interaction and planning present themselves. The sensitivity of the instruments seems even to surprise the men and women who built it. They were able to detect the methane in Earth’s atmosphere, for example, which exists as a scant 200 to 300 parts per billion. (Earth, they decide, is definitely habitable: “We’re seeing ozone, and the ozone is very unstable, so this is spectra of a planet generating oxygen.”) So who authors what paper? Who reports where in this mission phase? Where is the internal mission software falling short, and how can communication be improved? More importantly, how can the process be streamlined and accelerated?