09/02/2011 10:14 am ET | Updated Nov 02, 2011

Coming Home and Going Into Orbit

Events of July 15-16, 2011

I guess I'm what you might call an equal-opportunity space fan. I don't care if it's government or commercial, present-day or historical, solo or international -- if it goes into space, I think it's supercool! And that means I get just as excited about robotic missions as human ones! (Of course, that may have something to do with how cool I thought R2-D2 was the first time I saw Star Wars...)

So all throughout my internship, I was excited about the fact that the Dawn probe would reach the asteroid Vesta the same weekend I went home. At all of the morning meetings, I listened to reports from the science department that everything was going okay. There were some small glitches with the thrusters about two weeks before the scheduled arrival date, but Dawn was still on target to reach Vesta. Unfortunately, we might not have known until the weekend was over if it had gone safely into orbit around the asteroid or not.

In the old days, a lot of space probes didn't reach their targets. Sometimes, they didn't even reach space at all, because the rockets carrying them exploded after takeoff! Other ones missed their targets entirely, or failed to go into orbit around the planet or moon they'd been sent to and crashed into the surface. Nowadays, the track record is a lot better, but failures still occur -- I was just as disappointed as anybody last December when the Japanese Akatsuki probe failed to enter orbit around Venus.

Luckily, the spacecraft was fine, and the team will be able to try again in six years, but it was a reminder that success can't be taken for granted. When you follow a space mission, it's important to remember that you aren't watching these events in a movie or television show or reading about them in a book -- they're happening in real-time in front of you and the ending is never assured.

So, while I was optimistic about Dawn, I was also concerned. If everything worked out okay, it would be a very special mission -- Vesta would be the first dwarf planet to be explored by a space probe, and after the mission at Vesta was done, Dawn would leave orbit and fly off to visit another asteroid, Ceres. This would make Dawn the first spacecraft to enter orbit around one extraterrestrial world, leave it, and go into orbit around another.

Now, I'm not going to say that Vesta was the only thing on my mind as I packed up my stuff (VestaVestaVesta), said goodbye to Ms. Trinidad, Mr. Cabbage, and everybody else at work (VestaVestaVesta), brought my bags downstairs the next morning and waited for the airport taxi (VestaVestaVesta), rode to the airport and waited in the terminal (VestaVestaVesta), flew home and reunited with my family (VestaVestaVesta), unpacked my computer and went to the NASA site to see the headline...

"Dawn Spacecraft Enters Vesta Orbit!"

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