Embedding With the Scientists Behind a NASA Spacecraft Flyby

After 13 years of planning, the OSIRIS-REx team recently faced the first real test of their research equipment.

An image of Earth taken September 22 by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft during its gravity-assist flyby
An image of Earth taken September 22 by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft during its gravity-assist flyby (NASA / Goddard / University of Arizona)

The voice on the handset says “We are in two-way contact,” and the scientists gathered respond with cheers. The operations team has just confirmed that the spacecraft, OSIRIS-REx, is alive and healthy. It had been buzzing the Earth as planned, a mere 34,448 miles above the planet’s surface and too close for contact, this spacecraft the size of a UPS truck coursing along at 19,000 miles per hour. After 55 minutes of radio silence, it was now singing, outbound from Earth and on a new trajectory to an alien world.

The plan had worked: The Earth gravity assist, as it is called, was a success.

It is Friday, September 22, 2017. One year ago, OSIRIS-REx launched from Florida for the asteroid Bennu. Spacecraft rarely, however, make direct flights from one world to another. To save fuel, they swing around the solar system, borrowing the gravity of other celestial objects to adjust speed and direction. OSIRIS-REx’s trajectory took it from Earth, around the sun, and back to Earth for this, its second launch of sorts. The spacecraft plowed into the wash of southern Earth’s gravity, flying nearest to Australia and Antarctica before whipping under and up, physics firing it from the solar system’s orbital plane and sending it racing for rendezvous with Bennu.

Once it arrives, OSIRIS-REx will map every meter of the asteroid, record its resources, and eventually grab a sample to bring back home. Bennu is a pristine chunk of the ancient solar system, nudged near Earth over the last 4 billion years by happenstance and orbital mechanics. By understanding Bennu, planetary scientists can get a grip on how a swirling cloud of dust and gas could coalesce into a solar system capable of creating life. Our solar system is only 4.6 billion years old; Bennu, then, is like a wormhole to the beginning of us.

* * *

Here at the Michael Drake Building of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, voices from spacecraft operations continue conversing across the VOCA (the Voice Operational-Communications Assembly, a sort of secure phone for teams to talk), and Estelle Church, the team’s science-systems engineer here temporarily from Lockheed Martin, turns to her computer. The spacecraft dashboard on-screen begins populating with updated telemetry data. Temperatures, currents, voltages, instrument states—down the line, everything is nominal.

Church works alongside Sara Knutson, the mission’s lead science-operations engineer, who is overseeing the science side of the maneuver. There was practically zero chance that the spacecraft might be destroyed or auger into the Earth during the gravity assist: The laws of physics would not have allowed it. But the onboard computer might have announced an anomaly, or the spacecraft itself might have gone into “safe mode” (in the same way that desktop computers can at home), leaving engineers to puzzle together what happened.

In space exploration, everything builds on what has come before. When OSIRIS-REx flew by the Earth, all of its instruments were switched off, preventing any data collection in the moments of passing. The instruments didn’t have to be off, but back when NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which is now circling Jupiter, performed its own Earth gravity assist in 2013, it swept Terra with its science payload plugging away. Its computer got tripped up, and the spacecraft went to sleep. Juno wasn’t hotdogging with its flyby—opportunistic science is part of every space mission—and the spacecraft did recover, but a lesson was learned. OSIRIS-REx kept its complement cold for its brief dance with Earth’s gravity, and would study our home only afterward.

Now, with Earth growing smaller by the second for the speeding spacecraft, the scientists are free to reactivate the instruments to commence a science-observation campaign. They warm up its instruments and train them on the Earth for calibration and data collection. Our planet is perfect for this, because scientists have a solid grip on its fundamentals. If there are odd variations between known Earth data and those collected by OSIRIS-REx, the instrument teams can make adjustments accordingly. Perhaps the most exciting science to be performed today involves the camera. The team hopes to get a clear “pale-blue dot” shot of the Earth.

OSIRIS-REx will arrive at Bennu next August, which means less than one year remains for the team to refine their processes and learn their instruments not as simulations, but as functioning machines of science. For 13 years now, they have attempted to think through and rehearse every contingency, and cultivate a solid workflow for science and operations. Dante Lauretta, who leads the mission as its principal investigator and who, along with the late Michael Drake of the University of Arizona, conceived the mission and made it a reality, says that if every policy, procedure, and lesson learned were printed out, it would be millions of pages long.

And yet Bennu remains inscrutable, a wholly uncooperative celestial object. Nobody knows what, exactly, they will find there. Scientists have the broad strokes, following a rigorous astronomical campaign: They understand its density, rotation, and size (its diameter is about the height of the Empire State Building). It is known to be a carbon-rich. But the asteroid’s Wikipedia entry is shorter even than that of Asteroids, the arcade game from 1979. Even Bennu’s shape remains a mystery. It appears from telescopes to look vaguely like a walnut, but some screwy surprise could scrap shelves of strategy.

Lauretta has built into the arrival phase of the mission a “regrouping” period, so that the team will have time to step back and take in this entirely new and inscrutable object. This has to be done right. NASA scientists have never before had an opportunity to grab a boxful of the primitive solar system and bring it back home. Conceivably, OSIRIS-REx could rewrite the history of the solar system and help explain the mystery of the origin of life. If the mission fails, it might be decades, if ever, before NASA attempts a repeat.

* * *

Hours after the Earth gravity assist, the hallways of the Michael Drake Building feel like an Aaron Sorkin movie. Mounted to a wall in the lobby is a digital countdown clock labeled TIME UNTIL EARTH GRAVITY ASSIST. Just after launch last year, it read 374 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, 59.9 seconds. It now reads 000 00 00 00.0.

When team members aren’t working, they’re walking and talking or huddled in hallways and doorways discussing the flyby. The images. Prospects and possibilities for the data returned. What might we learn about this third planet from the sun? some joke. Is it habitable? Will there be water? But the spacecraft might indeed return usable earth-science data. The only question presently answerable is whether or not the team will come into the office after midnight and set about studying the data, or wait for more civilized hours of the morning. The scientists seem galvanized by the prospects of doing real science with a real spacecraft and an instrument payload that they conceived and carried to construction.

“This is the first opportunity that we’re going to have to really exercise our software that is intended to do mapping,” says Dani DellaGiustina, a senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. “We can use other missions’ data to practice running our software, but the images are a different size, or the images might have different metadata. The cameras are different. This is really the first test of our mapping software that we’re going to have using [the OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite] images.”

DellaGiustina is equally interested in what might go wrong, because better to encounter it now than at Bennu. “The thing I’ve come to realize is that there is some unknown unknown, some little wrinkle, that is going to show up. The more opportunities we have to collect data and push it to our software and look at it, we’re going to uncover some things—about camera behavior, about software, about assumptions in terms of data latency or processing time—that we just hadn’t even thought about.”

The Earth-observation campaign will also help Lauretta, Knutson, DellaGiustina, and other mission managers calibrate the team. Though they’ve worked together for years, plans today become operations. Planetary-science missions are notoriously taxing. Once at Bennu, the scientists of OSIRIS-REx will be running operations every day for two years on Bennu time, which does not recognize U.S. holidays or weekends. They will at the same time be publishing papers and reporting results. Such a relentless pace can fracture even the most solid and smoothly polished of teams, which makes today’s maneuver a second launch for the group itself as well as for the spacecraft: For the first time, they will use OSIRIS-REx to study an actual planetary object. (The one on which we live.) The next time they do this will be at Bennu.

“You can solve the engineering and you can solve the science, but solving the people is hard,” says Jason Dworkin, the project scientist of OSIRIS-REx out of NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland. “You need the right people. You need to feed them the right information. You need to give them the right environment, and leave them alone enough to do their brilliant work. People have different cultures and different ways of getting along.”

OSIRIS-REx has a large travel budget to help with this. “Having lunch together is more important than it sounds,” Dworkin says. “There’s something intimate and primal about sharing a meal that allows you to push through disagreements. Being able to have common jokes. These very human things help us in times of crisis.”

* * *

The question on everyone’s mind today is whether OSIRIS-REx will get a clear image of our home planet. The camera suite was designed for Bennu, one of the darkest objects in the solar system. (It is about the color of highway asphalt.) The Earth and its swirling white clouds, patchwork continents, and azure oceans might be a bit too much. The whole image might be washed out. This wouldn’t be a disaster from a scientific standpoint, but it would be a huge disappointment for everyone involved. On a spiritual level, that first image is everything.

Just after 6:00 that evening, a skeleton group of 15 scientists and engineers gather around the conference room table in the ops room (the “doughnut-distribution center,” where communal pastries are shared every Friday morning over informal conversations that shape the course of space exploration). Among those present are Lauretta, DellaGiustina, Knutson, and Church. Some are seated, some are standing, the anxiety of the moment preventing any real commitment one way or another.

The images are still on the spacecraft, so Church is monitoring its data from her computer—one of a dozen on the table, some open, some closed—and instant messaging her colleagues at Lockheed Martin in Denver for the status of the downlink. (Lockheed runs spacecraft operations. University of Arizona runs the science operations. NASA Goddard unifies and helps coordinate and manage the mission.) Projected on one wall of the ops room is proprietary software that will receive the science data. It should let us know when the image is ready to view.

“We’re on 25 right now,” says Church, drumming her fingers on her laptop. She is referring to the transmitting dish on the Deep-Space Network, NASA’s communications array used to talk with each of its spacecraft scattered throughout the solar system.

“California?” asks Lauretta.

“Goldstone, yeah.”

The room thrums with conversation and undirected energy, everyone sharing inside jokes and old war stories, what it was like receiving the first image from the spacecraft MESSENGER as it orbited Mercury and the first image from Phoenix at Mars. There’s no scientific or professional reason for this assembly: Those present could have connected through secure VPNs at home, or waited until the downlink completed in the predawn hours, or waited until tomorrow for the grand unveiling at a 9:00 a.m. meeting in an auditorium area they call the Pit. But after months of planning, a year of waiting, and a decade-plus of convincing the scientific community and selling NASA, of development and fabrication, of setbacks and scrapped plans and all-nighters and breakthroughs, you can’t just dial up from your apartment while waiting for your TV dinner to be ready.

“Okay, it should be coming down,” says Church. Engineering data will arrive first, and afterward, it should take a few minutes for each image to arrive: The spacecraft snapped dozens over a few hours. The energy of the room intensifies, and the scientists discuss camera fields of view and what to expect of this first image. After 13 years of planning, everyone has to know all of this already, but what else can you discuss? The bit counts projected on the wall tick torpidly upward when they tick at all. Church types with a kind of gleeful aggressiveness and takes quick breaths.

The team members break the tension with jokes about colleagues doing Facebook Live (the sort of outreach now part of every NASA mission in recent years) and facetiously ascribe any subsequent personal faults to their newfound Hollywood attitudes. (“Process your images? Yeah right—I’m basking in my likes!”) They discuss Pen-REx, the mission’s stuffed penguin-disguised-as-a-Tyrannosaurus-rex mascot, and how she figures in possible Lockheed motives for slowing the downlink. (“Give us Pen-REx if you want the data!”)

“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 ...”

“Well done.”


“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?”

“Everyone wave!”

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?

At Bennu, there will be no time for monthlong problem-solving sessions. There is a limited window to return the sample, and limited money to pay for it all. These are the sorts of things the team must sort out.

“It’s like we’re going off on this expedition and we just did the survey of our backpacks,” Lauretta says. “Whaddaya got? So you start looking at those tools and you’re thinking what jam could this one get me out of if I got stuck somewhere ... I’ve learned a lot about what’s in store for us and the work in front of us.”

OSIRIS-REx is now en route to the unsullied secrets of this vestige of genesis. The spacecraft arrives at Bennu in August. The board in the Michael Drake Building’s lobby will soon be reset: 317 days and counting.