September 8, 2004

I can’t decide which parts of this story delight me more. For the full tale, see Genesis Space Capsule Crashes Into Desert

The beginning: A space capsule named Genesis orbits the sun for three years.

The mission: Find clues about the origin of the solar system by collecting data about the composition of the sun.

The tools: Disks of gold, sapphire, diamond and silicone, which collected a billion billion charged atoms.

The design flaw: The disks were so fragile that the impact of the capsule returning to the earth from space – even with a parachute landing – could shatter them.

The "it just might work" backup plan: Hollywood stunt pilots who would use poles attached to helicopters to catch the parachute of the capsule, and lower it to the ground for a controlled landing. (If we can trust them to haul Pierce Brosnan around Dante’s Peak, why wouldn’t we trust them to pick up a $260 million dollar space capsule?)

The mishap: The space capsule entered the earth’s atmosphere with a tumbling, rather than a slicing trajectory.

The bigger mishap: The space capsule’s parachute did not deploy.

The biggest mishap: The space capsule hit the ground really, really hard.

The "kicker" mishap: Even if, miraculously, the fragile disks were not destroyed on impact, the explosive device that should have deployed the parachute may or may not have already detonated.

The understatement: "This just wasn’t supposed to happen. We’re going to have a lot of work picking up the pieces." Roger Wiens, Los Alamos National Laboratory

The losers: The scientists who had expected to study the materials collected for the next five years.

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