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OFJ Field Journal from Robert Gounley - 10/18/89


1989 would be the big year for my project -- the year the Galileo spacecraft would be launched. Even before launch, many years and hundreds of careers had already been invested in the mission. By mid- October, with launch imminent, most of the flight team members were visibly excited. Old-timers like me (by then, seven years on the project) were more introspective; we had been here before.

When the project was approved in 1977, plans called for a 1982 Space Shuttle launch along with a large booster rocket (its upper stage) to send Galileo off to Jupiter. Within a few years, delays in the Shuttle program forced Galileo's launch to "slip" to 1984. Later, funding problems with the upper stage forced a further delay, until 1985. In between, each new federal budget seemed to threaten Galileo with outright cancellation and each time Galileo managed to hold on. The engineers and scientists working on Galileo, all coping with formidable technical challenges made more complicated by each change to the mission, held on as well, hoping each postponement would be the last.

When I joined Galileo in December 1982, launch had just slipped to May 1986. This seemed more secure than previous dates. By now, the Shuttle had launched five times and funding for our upper-stage, the Shuttle- Centaur, was firmly in place. Morale picked up as we began to assemble and test the largest and most complex planetary explorer ever. In 1984, a milestone had been reached -- two years until launch. We had never been that close before!

By January 1986, I was spending most of my waking hours at work, preparing for Galileo's launch. Testing was complete and the spacecraft had been shipped by flat-bed truck from JPL in Pasadena to the Kennedy Space Center, where it become space shuttle Atlantis's prime cargo. Now, among other duties, I was the systems engineer responsible for the first maneuver Galileo would perform. This called for firing the spacecraft's thrusters about 10 days after launch to assure that its course would take it on a fly-by of the asteroid Amphitrite along the way to Jupiter. After years of designing, testing, and trouble-shooting Galileo, I was on the team that would fly it. Unfortunately, there was no owner's manual in the glove compartment.

Early on morning of January 28, 1986, the Galileo flight team assembled in a large conference room for another in a long series of training lectures. Some of us rubbed sleep from our eyes while others fidgeted, thinking of the work remaining back at our desks. Overhead, the TV monitors were all tuned to NASA's internal television network. Later that day, there would be a press conference announcing Voyager 2's discoveries at the planet Uranus. Meanwhile, the monitors showed preparations to launch another Space Shuttle. For us, that launch meant that there would be only one more to go before our own.

The lecture crept along, broken by many questions and clarifications. Finally, someone suggested we take a short break to watch the shuttle launch. We all looked up in time to watch the Space Shuttle Challenger liftoff and clear the tower. Since the TV monitors had their sound off, people chatted freely. Over my shoulder, someone said, "It's amazing how that thing works every time."

On the screen above, Challenger was fading into the sky. By now, we knew the shuttle launch sequence by heart. Soon the solid rocket motors would burn out and separate. We were all startled when we saw what appeared to be an early separation of the solid motors. As the seconds dragged, a growing fireball filled the screen, showing many pieces dropping from the sky.

Without spoken commentary from the TV, no one knew for sure what was happening.

In some launch failures, the shuttle can return to the launch site for a runway landing. Was Challenger on its way there now, out of sight of the TV camera?

Someone said the monitors in the cafeteria next door might have sound. About a dozen of us bolted for the doors. The cafeteria monitors were silent also, but as we arrived, the NASA cameras had panned downward to watch large pieces of debris hit the ocean. There was no sign of Challenger gliding toward a runway.

We all felt grief in our own ways. A few cried. Others stared vacantly at the screen, then slowly ambled away. The Astronaut Corps, the most visible side of NASA, came to represent the many thousands of us that worked in the space program. We lost family that day.

On the Galileo project, our actions, which a short time earlier were energetic and purposeful, became lethargic and disjointed. Would Galileo ever launch? Would there be planetary exploration at all in the near future?

Within a day, our Project Manager, John Casani, returned from Florida where he had been overseeing Galileo launch preparations. We assembled in the cafeteria and John spoke atop a chair so he could be seen and heard by everyone.

He confirmed, as most had already assumed, that no one knew when to expect another shuttle flight. In the meantime, our work to prepare for launch and flight operations remained very important and we were all expected to continue. Galileo would launch someday and the knowledge required to fly it must be "captured" while this flight team remained together. Meanwhile, others would go off to plan a new mission.

1986 dragged on with new options considered and dropped almost weekly. For a while, a 1987 launch seemed possible. Soon the new launch date moved to 1988 and finally settled at October 1989. Our upper stage-- the Shuttle-Centaur booster, which used cryogenic liquid fuel--had been canceled a few months earlier. The spacecraft was now going to use the much smaller Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster. To get to Jupiter, Galileo would have to take a six-year looping trajectory through the inner solar system rather than a two-year direct flight. More importantly, the spacecraft would have to be significantly modified to fly much closer to the Sun than the original flight path called for. The added time was a disappointment, but there was now so much more to be done.

By October 1989, the spacecraft was inside the Space Shuttle Discovery, awaiting launch. A new flight team had been assembled, about an even mix of new faces and old. This time, I was in charge of early cruise activities to check out Galileo's operation -- a "shake-out" to uncover problems before the Venus fly-by next February when solar heating would be at its worst. Depending on the day Galileo launched, my command sequence would have to be adjusted (since the actual trajectory would be somewhat different from the planned trajectory). Unfortunately, that meant that during launch I would not be stationed in Galileo's Mission Support Area (the MSA being Galileo's version of Apollo 13's Mission Control - Houston). Rather, I would have to stay fresh to rework my commands soon after Galileo was sent on its way.

This wasn't the happiest possible arrangement for me, but I accepted that responsibilities had to be divided and there were others who were more qualified to do the monitoring. Besides, the last thing the MSA needed were people standing around "just to be there" and obstructing other's concentration.

In the weeks prior to launch, some friends and I conspired to make our own personal statement on Launch Day. This project consumed most of the precious personal time we had, but it seemed not to matter. How many times does someone get to celebrate the start of a planetary voyage?

Galileo's launch date was set by the positions of the planets. For a proper gravity assist, the spacecraft must approach Venus at precisely the right time and in precisely the right direction and speed. Our upper-stage would deliver most of the energy required for this; the rest would come to launch and, on either side of it, days when you could get to Venus by using more fuel. In hard terms, this meant Galileo *had* to be launched sometime between October 12 and November 21, or the increased fuel cost would force us to delay launch until the next favorable planetary alignment six months later.

To make matters worse, the Space Shuttle had its own constraints that determined what time of day it could launch. In the middle of our launch period we might have a "launch window" lasting over an hour, but near the beginning and end there would only be minutes to launch on each day. A streak of minor problems or one large one could keep Galileo earthbound until the following year.

As our launch period began, everyone waited nervously as the shuttle prepared for launch. Minutes ticked away and then an announcement came from Florida. The shuttle had a problem with one of its computers and the launch that day was scrubbed.

A week later, with the computer repaired, our countdown began again. This time, clouds rolled in over the launch site and weather forced another cancellation.

October the 18th was a bright and sunny day in Pasadena. There were still clouds in Florida, so many of us expected that day's launch would be scrubbed also. Either that, or some other problem would cause a delay. Working on Galileo, we had learned to accept such things.

Friends in the MSA that morning tell me that when the launch clock finally started ticking down to the single minutes, they looked at each other with eyes wide. They were really going to do it! In a conference room in another building, I watched a TV screen with a roomful of other Galileo personnel. There was a buzz of nervous chatter right up to the final seconds before launch.

Al Hoffman, our chief environmental engineer, kept a watchful eye on the door to make sure latecomers had a view.

When the Space Shuttle cleared the launch tower, the room erupted with cheers and applause. The noise subsided as the shuttle rose higher and we remembered another launch three and a half years earlier. We held our breaths as Discovery passed through one minute of flight and then two. Cheers rose up again when we saw the shuttle's solid-rocket motors burn out and fall safely away.

Fists punched the air and hands slapped each other in "high-fives". Others slumped contentedly in their chairs, relieved that their wait was finally over.

With the shuttle, and our spacecraft, safely on its way to Earth orbit, Al Hoffman began handing out lapel pins commemorating Galileo's launch. It was the first of many similar pins I would receive.

My co-conspirators and I looked at each other. The shuttle, with Galileo aboard, was in space at last. This was the right time.

We went to a utility closet and took the bundle of cloth, wood, and rope that we had worked nights and weekends to prepare. On the roof, we spread apart as planned and began to tie our rigging. Over the side we hung our banner measuring about 10 feet high by 50 feet wide, all in white with large blue lettering. "Galileo: WE'RE ON OUR WAY!", it said in print large enough to be plainly seen from JPL's plaza, eight stories below. Fluttering in the sun that clear fall morning, it was a beautiful sight.

Perhaps it was an extravagant gesture, but it spoke of the pride and satisfaction felt that day. We wanted to tell the world about it.

Whatever the future held, Galileo was earthbound no longer.

Bob Gounley went on to become a deputy team chief for Galileo's engineering team and understands that it is against regulations to hang banners off the sides of buildings without prior approval. Having recently started work on a new project, he now observes the Galileo project from afar. He looks forward to celebrating Galileo's arrival at Jupiter next week.



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