It was a gut-wrenching sight. As the capsule carrying precious samples of the solar wind collected by the Genesis spacecraft approached its Utah landing site, NASA TV viewers around the world could clearly see the 1.5-meter-wide disk tumbling earthward with no sign of its stabilizing parachute. Within seconds, the capsule slammed into the desert floor, abruptly ending the $264 million mission to return a sample of the sun to help deepen scientists' understanding of the solar system's origins.
The disaster aggravates NASA's struggles with its Discovery program of low-cost solar system missions (Science, 23 July, p. 467). Discovery's CONTOUR spacecraft blew up in 2002 on its way to a comet, and several missions in the works have encountered cost overruns and development problems. What, if anything, NASA can do to shore up ongoing missions will depend on the nature of the Genesis failure. Although the probe wasn't designed to send back data while entering the atmosphere, the recovery crew quickly determined that none of the explosives that deploy the parachutes had gone off, suggesting that the command to fire had never been sent.
That gives Peter Tsou of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, pause. The deputy principal investigator of the Discovery program's Stardust mission notes that its sample-return capsule carrying comet dust was designed and built by the same industry partners as the Genesis capsule. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed” for the 2006 return, he says, but “frankly, there's not much we can do now."All may not be lost for Genesis, however. "There is still hope for science from this mission," Genesis project manager Don Sweetnam said. The 205-kilogram capsule weathered its 360-kilometer-per-hour return surprisingly well, embedding itself halfway into the ground and only cracking open a few centimeters here and there. The brittle collection wafers embedded with atoms of the solar wind may well have shattered, but specialists at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, will try to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. No one at today's press conference made any promises.