CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — An Atlas V rocket, a candle burning brightly in the evening sky trailed by a thick plume of white smoke, successfully launched the latest chapter in the University of Arizona's rich history of planetary science Thursday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
After 12 long years that included two failed proposals with NASA and the untimely death of the project's principal investigator, the spacecraft for the UA-led OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission has left the planet, much to the relief of the scientist who has been involved every step of the way.
"You all will be glad to know that we got everything exactly perfect," said a jubilant Dante Lauretta, the UA professor who succeeded the late Michael Drake as the mission's chief, in a news conference at the Kennedy Space Center two hours after liftoff.
"We kicked that field goal right down the center of the goalposts," Lauretta said.
The sports analogy seemed appropriate for a launch that in many ways resembled a stadium event. An estimated 8,000 spectators — including some clad in the red and blue of the UA — packed two grandstands at the Banana Creek Viewing Area to watch the 7:05 p.m. EDT liftoff, which took place at Space Launch Complex 41, about two miles in the distance. Cheers of "U of A! U of A!" could be heard intermittently, and the commentary of NASA announcer Mike Curie added to the drama.
The crowd included Cathy Caris Hart, daughter of the late Richard F. Caris, a longtime UA benefactor for whom the University's Steward Observatory Mirror Lab was renamed in 2015. Caris' gift of $20 million enabled the UA to be a founding partner of the Giant Magellan Telescope, scheduled for completion in Chile in less than 10 years. Caris, 81, died on Aug. 9 of this year.
"I came here for the Apollo 17 launch with my dad so many years ago," Hart said, "and to be back here with my kids is amazing. My dad was so intrigued by asteroids, and it breaks my heart for him to not see this. He would have loved it."
Hart said her father's name is one of nearly 450,000 carried aboard the spacecraft on a microchip. Most of the names were submitted through a campaign conducted two years ago by NASA.
Tim Swindle, who succeeded Drake as director of the UA's distinguished Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, seemed grateful that OSIRIS-REx finally was bound for Bennu, the carbon-rich asteroid that the spacecraft's arm will gently tag for a sampling of surface material in about four years. If all goes according to plan, 2-plus ounces of Bennu's dirt will come back to Earth in September 2023 as the largest sample returned from space since the Apollo moon landings.
"We've been battling to get this mission confirmed and to get it built," Swindle said of the various twists and turns, "and now we have a flying spacecraft. Now the fun begins."
That keen sense of anticipation was everywhere among the UA faithful at the launch. Dan Petrocelli, senior director of development for the College of Science, already can't wait to see the first images of the asteroid.
"The most exciting part is that this is only the beginning," Petrocelli said of the launch. "This is the starting gun of a marathon."
The spacecraft, about the size of a sport utility vehicle, separated from the rocket at 8:04 p.m. The solar arrays deployed and are now powering the spacecraft, which is "working absolutely as we designed and tested it," said Rich Kuhns, OSIRIS-REx program manager for Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver.
"Let's go get the science," Kuhns said.
The enormous challenge of getting the science never seemed to weigh on Lauretta during a demanding schedule of duties and appearances in the time leading up to the launch. He showed up in shorts and with his family in tow for a Thursday morning brunch hosted by the College of Science at a Cocoa Beach hotel, and he spoke with candor and emotion to those assembled.
Lauretta, 46, who grew up in the small community of New River, Arizona, just north of Phoenix, recalled being raised by a single mother and needing scholarship assistance to afford attending the UA as an undergraduate. To make ends meet, he took a job as a short-order cook at Mike's, a now-defunct restaurant near campus, serving up 99-cent breakfast specials to fellow students of much greater means.
"I can still flip eggs like nobody's business," he said.
After earning bachelor's degrees in physics and mathematics plus Oriental studies — and graduating cum laude — he went on to doctoral studies at Washington University in St. Louis and postdoctoral research at Arizona State University. He joined the UA faculty in 2001.
His relationship with Drake, his mentor, deepened as they worked on OSIRIS-REx, and the baton was passed when Drake's failing health kept him from continuing as the mission's principal investigator.
Lauretta wasn't sure he was ready. Drake, who died almost exactly five years ago, told him that he was.
"I can't explain the honor and privilege of this mission," Lauretta said. "It's a dream come true for me. The other day, I got to walk 25 feet behind a rocket, and it was my rocket.
"If you think this (launch) is exciting, wait until we get to that asteroid. When we're there, we'll have only the heartbeat of the spacecraft to go by. But maybe we should check the heartbeat of the principal investigator at the same time."