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How NASA engineers mourn the death of a spacecraft

Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LA CANADA FLINTRIDGE, Calif. -- They called it a wake, but the loved one they had come to mourn wasn't a person.

It was the Cassini spacecraft, the robotic explorer that had spent the last 13 years unlocking the mysteries of Saturn, its rings and its many moons.

Soon after Cassini vaporized like a shooting star in the Saturnian sky, about 175 members of the mission's engineering team gathered in an airy banquet room at the La Canada Flintridge Country Club to eulogize their spacecraft.

There were toasts and singing. But there were some misty eyes as well.

"You have this great pride in all you were able to accomplish," said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "But it's still an emotional loss."

When it comes to spacecraft, even scientists get sentimental.

These flying hunks of metal call their caretakers in the middle of the night, infuriate them with their quirks and dazzle them with amazing discoveries about the universe.

So is it any wonder that when their time has passed, their human handlers will feel a sense of loss?

Cassini's instruments were working just fine at the time of its demise; the problem was that it was running out of fuel. Mission planners worried that if they didn't crash the orbiter into the ringed planet, it might collide with one of Saturn's ice moons and contaminate it. That would complicate future efforts to search for signs of life there.

The team had seven years to prepare for the spacecraft's end on Sept. 15. But that didn't make it easy to say goodbye.

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