DAVID GREENE, HOST:
On Sept. 10th, 1985, on this program, we reported about a triumph for NASA.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
BOB EDWARDS: Tomorrow morning, a recycled U.S. satellite will encounter the little-known but very bright Giacobini-Zinner Comet.
GREENE: It was the first time a spacecraft had ever visited a comet. Since then, the probe has spent almost three decades on a large, looping orbit around the sun. Its lonely trek will soon bring it close to Earth once again, and NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that one man is on a quest to reconnect with this vintage piece of space hardware.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Back in the 1980s, space agencies were racing to be the first to fly by a comet - Halley's Comet, to be precise. But NASA wasn't going because it was too expensive. That did not sit well with a NASA mission designer named Bob Farquhar. He figured out how to divert an existing satellite that was stationed between the Earth and the sun. He came up with a complicated trajectory that would let it intercept a different comet months before the armada of other space probes would arrive at Halley's.
BOB FARQUHAR: We beat all the other countries of the world - the European Space Agency, the Russians, the Japanese.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says he got a congratulatory letter from President Ronald Reagan, though not everyone was amused by the comet caper, like some of the scientists who'd been using that spacecraft, called ISEE-3, to study things like the solar wind.
FARQUHAR: And felt like we took the spacecraft away from them too early. They thought that - well, it was in the newspapers, even - that we stole their spacecraft. We didn't steal it. We just borrowed it for a while. That's what I tried to tell them.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: After he flew it through the comet's tail, he'd set it on a course that would bring it back, eventually.
FARQUHAR: OK. So we took it away in 1983, and you get it back in 2014. How many years is that? Oh, that's about 31 years.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Bob Farquhar is now 81 years old. He's been called the master of getting to places. His genius is inventing esoteric flight plans that take advantage of gravitational boosts from the moon and close flybys of Earth to send space probes zipping around the solar system in surprising ways. He's so adept at calculating these exotic trajectories that often, just for fun, he's made sure that key mission events fall on birthdays or anniversaries. The exploits of ISEE-3 were the first ones to show off what he could do.
FARQUHAR: Certainly, all the people in the space business know that that's my spacecraft. It's very personal with me.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: His memoir makes it clear how personal. For example, he writes that when he was hospitalized after a heart attack, the spacecraft suffered a battery failure, making him believe they shared a, quote , "supernatural connection."
FARQUHAR: It's my baby, yeah. It's something I worked on for a long time, and I had to sell it to NASA, and sell it to a lot of people.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: What Farquhar is selling now is the idea of waking up this old satellite and doing what he promised: giving it back. There's a short window in the next few months when it could be commanded to veer close to the moon's surface. The moon's gravity would change its path and basically, make it return it to the spot where it was before it went off chasing comets. One of the people he's convinced is Daniel Baker.
DANIEL BAKER: It would not just be a curiosity. It would actually be a useful scientific tool.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Baker is director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado. He says these days, other satellites monitor space between the Earth and the sun. Still, this one would give them valuable additional measurements. He actually worked on ISEE-3 when he was younger.
BAKER: It's not often that something that you've sent off supposedly into oblivion sort of comes back to you; nature brings it back to you.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says during its long voyage through the vastness of space, this good little robot has presumably just been tending to its business, ready to obey whatever command might come next. He finds it satisfying that without missing a beat, it could go back to the job it was supposed to do when it launched in 1978.
BAKER: It really, to me, is a fascinating thing that we can even dream of reassembling the puzzle here and put it back the way, sort of, it was - before Bob stole the spacecraft.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Waking up an old spacecraft like it was Rip Van Winkle is not easy. People have had to dive into archives and pull out old documents to figure out things like, what language does this machine even speak? Not everyone who used to work on this thing is still around.
JAMES GREEN: Keith Ogilvie's here. I'm sure he's retired. Smith is retired. Jean-Louis Steinberg, I believe he's retired.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: James Green is sitting at NASA headquarters, where he's director of the Planetary Science Division. He's going over a list of the spacecraft's science instruments and the researchers who were in charge of them.
GREEN: Bonnard Teegarden, he's retired many years ago.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Another problem: some of the old equipment needed to talk to the spacecraft is just gone. Green says NASA got rid of it.
GREEN: Deep-space communication has changed radically over the last 25 years.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But it looks like an 18-meter satellite dish at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory still has the right hardware.
GREEN: And so NASA's given them the approval to be able to try that out.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Workers there will see how well they can communicate with the spacecraft and assess its condition. This is still kind of an unofficial effort. NASA hasn't made any firm commitment to this spacecraft, despite Bob Farquhar's relentless lobbying.
GREEN: You know, Bob Farquhar is a man of his word. If he said he would do everything he could - because he's borrowed the spacecraft - to put it back, that's what he's going to try to do.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Green says around NASA, this guy's a legend.
GREEN: We owe a lot to Bob's creativeness to get our spacecraft in locations that we want them. And so from that perspective, he's really a neat guy, really important in our field.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, he knows where he wants this spacecraft.
GREEN: Well, wishing doesn't make it so, and we have to at least find the health of the spacecraft before we even make the decision of doing that.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Meanwhile, Bob Farquhar isn't optimistic that it will happen.
FARQUHAR: Well, I think the chances are, oh, 50-50.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: When he sat down at home to talk about this, he was wearing plaid flannel pajamas and a robe. He wasn't feeling well. Still, he spoke for nearly two hours.
FARQUHAR: It's the most cost-effective spacecraft we ever had, and I'd like to make it even more cost-effective. It can do more missions.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But only if a command is sent soon - before late May, or early June. This is his last chance. If the spacecraft's path doesn't change, it will fly by the Earth in August. Its trajectory will bring it back again years from now, but it won't come close enough to be recaptured.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.