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JPL podcast: Stardust -- Return to Earth Jan. 11, 2006
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Helicopters warming up

The night is December 13, 2005. Members of NASA's Stardust comet sample return mission are rehearsing at the US Army Dugway Proving Ground southwest of Salt Lake City. It is a couple hours past midnight. For team personnel who work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California – where the project is managed - it is cold.

BOB CORWIN: The aircraft behind me are running up, getting ready to go out and land at their staging point and then fly from there to the recovery site to pick up the SRC.

SOUND: Helicopter takeoff

Narrator: That is Bob Corwin, the recovery operations team lead for Stardust. He is from Lockheed Martin in Denver so the cold does not bother him... or at least not as much.

BOB CORWIN: The recovery helicopters have to go out there and land out on the salt flats near the SRC to pick it up. No place out there to land a fixed wing aircraft.

Narrator: One thing you have to remember if you hang out with members of the Stardust crew is the term 'SRC'. That stands for Sample Return Capsule – the 100 pound hero of our story who makes a fiery return in the wee hours of January 15... and lands out in the desert salt flats of Utah and waits for a lift... In the cold.

SOUND: Helicopters hovering

Narrator: It's cold out here. Can't we do this in Honolulu in the summer?

BOB CORWIN: We could, but we are trying to practice as you fly. So this is the time of day. It is exactly a month from now. The same moon conditions. Everything is just like what we are going to have for the real recovery.

Narrator: Practice – or train as you fly - is something Team Stardust knows quite well.

SOUND: (Stardust rocket launch) "4, 3, 2, We have main engine start. Zero. And liftoff of the Stardust spacecraft returning a time capsule of the elements of the formation of our solar system."

Narrator: That was back on February 7, 1999. Just a month shy of four years after launch, Stardust had a close encounter with comet Vilt-2.

NATURAL SOUND: "And, all Stardust systems: This is closest approach at this time." [APPLAUSE]

Narrator: It not only successfully weathered the hailstorm of debris that surrounded the comet's nucleus, peppering the spacecraft at 6-times the speed of a rifle bullet -- but more importantly – came away with a collector filled with pristine cometary particles. Since that day in January 2004, Stardust has been headed home. Southern California resident Cliff Fleming of South Coast Helicopters. He is the pilot of the lead recovery helicopter charged with finding and retrieving the SRC after it touches down in the dark...

CLIFF FLEMING: We have 3 methods installed on the aircraft, a pretty sophisticated GPS system; also we have a RF radio receiver. And a third item of course we have an infrared system mounted to the aircraft that will pick up any heat and as cold as it is out there anything warm out there we should be able to track that.

Narrator: The infrared system should work well because the sample return capsule should be a great deal warmer than the rest of the desert salt flats surrounding it. Not the 4900-degrees Fahrenheit it will endure during the high-point of re-entry only 20-or so minutes earlier, but still a toasty 122-degrees Fahrenheit.

CLIFF FLEMING: Hope there is not any ground mice out there we might track them (laughs)... it should be interesting tonight.

SOUND: Air-to-Ground radio: "MAWK has a good main chute and a good track on the item. Good beacon. Descending thru 6,000. Estimating touchdown at 24 past the hour."

"Vertigo MAWK, are you ready to copy coordinates?"

Narrator: It is still dark when Fleming and the rest of the Stardust recovery team return to Dugway's Michael Army Air Field with the test sample return capsule.

SOUND: Helicopters returning

Narrator: A US Air Force pickup truck gingerly drives the SRC the half-mile to a temporary cleanroom where the it undergoes minor surgery.

RON SEEDARS: They selected me to tear it apart so that I what I am going to do.

Narrator: Ron Seedars is the lead field recovery technician for Stardust. Part of his job is to take the top off the capsule so they can get to the specially designed canister - which holds the precious comet samples. The way he "rips" into the capsule is actually pretty precise. It requires steady hands. But what about some of his tools?

RON SEEDARS: We just went down to Ace hardware and purchased it (laughs) I mean there is nothing special about it, it is just a cordless-type drill nothing very fancy about it.

Narrator: By the time Seedars and his team finish their job it is close to daybreak. The capsule's 'serving plate-sized' science canister and its cosmic booty is packed away in a specially-designed travel container.

KAREN McNAMARA: Our job is to make sure that the science samples get back to JSC intact – that we protect them thru the whole recovery process thru the processing in the clean room and get them home safe so that scientists can harvest the information that is there.

Narrator: That's Karen McNamara, the mission's recovery lead for curation. She's from Johnson Space Center – where NASA stores the stuff of other worlds - meteorites, solar samples and Apollo moon rocks. Naturally, she is a big fan of sample return missions like Stardust.

KAREN McNAMARA: In space you are limited to whatever you launched. You can't get up there and say boy I really would like to use another technique to collaborate this because you can't fly it back up there. Here, if we have questions and want to look with a second technique we have the ability to do that and that lets you validate everything that you have learned.

Narrator: Everyone working on the Stardust mission understands that the scientific return pried from these grains of cometary sand is what matters most. But on a personal level, bringing a mission full circle, after a seven year, 2.88 billion mile odyssey, that means something as well. Ron Seedars - Bob Corwin - and Karen McNamara.

RON SEEDARS: I have been doing this for 20 years... It is kinda exciting, this is one you get to bring back and see what it looks like, a lot of the others you don't get to see what they look like they go out in space and end their mission... so there will be a little bit of excitement in that respect, I don't expect any surprises in that respect, it has been a very successful mission so far.

BOB CORWIN: I worked on Stardust from the beginning in 1997 and its kind of like this is my grandchild. I sent it away and seeing it come home will be the culmination of the best thing I have done in my career.

KAREN McNAMARA: It is really going to be an awesome feeling, For us you have got to understand no one has seen this material, no one has seen this but God, and you are going to open this up and see true extraterrestrial materials that have are not compromised... they sealed that capsule 7 years ago and launched it and no one has seen it.

KAREN McNAMARA: I think it is just awesome – it feels like you are seeing something that until this moment God's eyes are the only one's to have seen. That is just going to be an awesome, incredible thing to see.

The Stardust sample return mission concludes in the very early morning hours on January 15. For insomniacs and interested space aficionados, you can tune in to NASA TV for full coverage or watch us live on the internet at

To learn more about the science of Stardust, check out JPL's internet podcast interview with Dr. Don Brownlee, Stardust's principal investigator. I'm DC Agle.

+ Audio/transcript of podcast with Dr. Don Brownlee, Stardust principal investigator

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