It’s Sunday, 13 June 2010. My phone beeps an SMS: “Successful separation of space return capsule from mothership. Re-entry at 11.21 pm SA time. All looking good.”
It’s hard to capture the excitement of this – the excitement I know is in the heart of the sender, Lindsay Campbell, an Air Force squadron leader standing in the desert of South Australia, and which is kindled in me, in my Sydney kitchen.
The mothership is the Hayabusa (which means ‘falcon’), a Japanese spacecraft a little larger than a washing machine. It has travelled 2 billion kilometres to the asteroid Itokawa and is now, after a seven-year return journey, coming back to land in the Australian Defence Force’s Woomera Prohibited Area. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) describes Hayabusa’s mission as nothing less than “to bring back samples from an asteroid and investigate the mysteries of the birth of the solar system”. This delicate-winged construction of metal and computers and a new kind of ion engine has been, effectively, both far into space and back in time.
Asteroids, as JAXA puts it, “are thought to be celestial bodies that preserve information from the time of the solar system’s formation”. Rocket scientist Dr Ian Tuohy describes asteroids as space debris, leftover bits of matter from when the solar system was formed some 4.6 billion years ago. Unlike the meteorites that fall to earth fairly regularly, getting burnt as they come through our atmosphere, asteroids in space remain pristine, Tuohy says, “like a fossil”. Itokawa (named after the founder of the Japanese space program) is a solid mass of silicate rock and dust, 540 x 270 x 210 metres. By sampling its material the mission may make discoveries, if not about the origins of the universe – which, (controversially, but probably) at 15 billion years, is considerably older – then about how our solar system came into existence. In the photographs sent back by the Hayabusa, this celestial body, potentially holding clues to life, the universe and everything, looks exactly like an oversized kipfler potato.
Dr Tuohy has worked on the Hayabusa project with the Japanese government for the past ten years. “I rate the excitement level here as extremely high,” he told me just before the scheduled landing. “I am keen to see the fireball.” Tuohy describes the vicissitudes of the unimaginably long journey of the Hayabusa as an “epic”, and “a mini version of the Apollo 13 Mission, in that it’s a spacecraft coming home through great adversity”. Two of the three reaction wheels failed, the ion engines partially failed, the craft lost contact with Earth completely for a period and the battery died; it is coming back to us powered entirely by sunlight. “It is the ingenuity of the Japanese,” Tuohy says with warm admiration, “that is bringing her home.”
When the mothership enters the atmosphere she will burn up, so just before she does she will eject a space return capsule the size of a basketball containing, hopefully, the precious asteroid dust. The capsule will then continue its trajectory until over Woomera Prohibited Area, where it will release a parachute for landing. If successful, this will be the first time a space capsule has been landed in Australia.
But it is not the first time a landing has been attempted. In my nanosecond career as an international lawyer, I found myself in a room in Canberra negotiating a treaty with the Germans and the Japanese to land a space capsule called EXPRESS at Woomera. It was 1994. For reasons neither he nor I can remember, my boss, a meticulous and usually responsible man, had left me there alone. The negotiations were at a sticking point about which nation should bear the responsibility for paying what could be stupendous sums in compensation should the capsule go off course and fail to land at Woomera, coming down instead on Melbourne or Brisbane or Wagga. I remember cranky Germans and unreadable Japanese jabbing the maps on which the “landing footprint” – an area the size of England – was marked with a dotted line. To them this was an empty wasteland but to us and, more particularly, to its Aboriginal owners it was home.
“The risk of the capsule going off course,” one of the Germans said, in his pale linen suit, “is 10¯9.” He eyed me closely. “Do you comprehend how small that is?”
I resented the attempt to blind me with science or even just with maths.
“That must be a very small number,” I replied.
The heads opposite me nodded sagely. “Which is why it should not be a problem for you to take the risk and insure for it.”
I was living in Berlin when the EXPRESS capsule was launched, and lost. Though it was unmanned, German newspapers carried cartoons of little helmeted astronauts in space with no clue. I later heard the EXPRESS had come back to Earth somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, west of Chile.
What for me became material for an increasingly baroque tale of how I single-handedly saved the planet was for Ian Tuohy a deep, demoralising disappointment. Tuohy had worked on the EXPRESS mission for two years. “There was a problem with the launch vehicle,” he explains, “which sent the craft into the wrong orbit. It effectively disappeared for most of 1995.” Eventually, the capsule was found in a partially inhabited area of northern Ghana. The locals had watched, mystified and afraid, as a strange, parachute-born object, heralded by a sonic boom, landed and smouldered on the ground. “Machetes,” Tuohy says, “proved ineffective in gaining access to the contraption.” Because of the Cyrillic writing on the capsule (it was Russian made), the locals suspected it might be radioactive and put it in a hangar for nearly a year. Eventually, word got out and the capsule is now on display in Bremen. When I tell Tuohy about my experience with the risk of 10-9 during the negotiations he sighs and says, “You were dead right.”
The Hayabusa’s space return capsule lands exactly as planned. Afterwards, I speak again with Lindsay Campbell. “It was the most fascinating moment I’ve ever had in the Air Force!” says the 40-year veteran. “To see the mothership come in — it was like Venus, only bigger, brighter and coming at you quicker. The next minute there was this huge flash in the sky and she started breaking up into a fireball and millions of pieces. The Japanese were in tears because they were all in love with the mothership. Then, just in front, you could see the little capsule come out! It was euphoria when we saw the capsule on its own. The Japanese were screaming their heads off at that point. It was like a death and a birth all at the same time! Honestly, it sounded almost sexual how excited people became.” I heard them online, male and female voices enthralled, amazed and elated. Perhaps the only possible metaphors for this huge undertaking are the biggest, most primal ones we have: about birth, life, death. And primal excitement, on this planet, sounds the same in any language.
After the landing, the area is locked down for the retrieval the next day. Campbell supervises the transformation of the Woomera Airfield into an international airport, complete with customs and quarantine officers and facilities, so the Japanese can fly their capsule directly home. He is the last man there when I speak with him on the Tuesday. He has watched the recovered capsule being wheeled to the plane. “It’s funny to think,” he says, “that the answers to the universe could be contained in that ignominious little box on the trolley.”