America's space program owes an unexpected debt to Batman--as well as to Seabiscuit, the Hulk and dozens of other movie projects. Or at least it will, come early September, if a helicopter stunt pilot who sharpened his skills on all those films succeeds in bringing one of NASA's most unusual--and least known--spacecraft home safely. The ship is called Genesis, the helicopter pilot is Cliff Fleming, and together they may help NASA get its best-ever chance to examine a piece of the sun itself.
Genesis, a mission run by NASA'S Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., was launched in August 2001 to solve a cosmic conundrum. Although the sun and the flood of particles it radiates make up 99% of all the matter in the solar system, earthlings have never been able to grab hold of much of that so-called solar wind, beyond a tiny bit collected by several of the Apollo missions. Earth's magnetic field causes the stream of hydrogen, helium and other elements the sun gives off to flow around our world like river water around a rock.
If researchers could collect a better helping of such ancient stuff, that would go a long way toward explaining how the crude materials that constituted the early solar system developed into the discrete planets that exist today. For 27 months of its three-year mission, Genesis trolled through space beyond the orbit of the moon, gathering solar wind on five 4-in. hexagonal collector plates--each coated with silicon, gold, sapphire or diamond--and then stowing them back inside the body of the spacecraft. What's there could be a cosmic treasure: "A billion billion molecules for us to study," says Don Burnett, a geophysicist at the California Institute of Technology and project scientist for the Genesis mission. But first the $260 million ship must make it home in one piece.
The returning portion of the spacecraft is about the size of a truck tire and weighs 450 lbs. When it hits the atmosphere on Sept. 8, it will be traveling at a searing 24,700 m.p.h. Even after it unfurls its parachute-like parafoil and begins coasting toward the Utah desert, it will be heading for a thudding 22m.p.h. touchdown, enough to damage the collector plates, particularly if the ship has already been dinged by micrometeorites. An ocean splashdown would cause only a marginally smaller bump and would present a further risk of water contamination.
For all those reasons, NASA called on Fleming's skills as a helicopter pilot. When the ship returns, he and a two-man crew will be waiting in the air, giving chase at about 9,500 ft. in a Eurocopter A-star chopper. When they reach the falling probe, they will use a 20-ft. catch pole with a latching hook on the end to snag the parafoil. The hook will then detach from the pole, although it will still be connected by a cable. At that point a pyrotechnic blast will fire a pin across the mouth of the hook, sealing it around the cable; finally, a winch will spool the cable out a bit, reducing the jolt on the helicopter. "It's a smooth transition in the mid-air retrieval," says Brian Johnson, the payload master aboard the chopper.