Artist rendering of the Genesis probe in its sample-collecting mode.
NASA is turning to an unlikely source for help with one of its latest science missions: Hollywood stunt pilots.
Helicopter pilots more accustomed to getting that perfect shot have been enlisted to help with the delicate retrieval of the Genesis spacecraft return capsule when the unmanned NASA craft is scheduled to deliver its payload back to Earth on Sept. 8, 2004.
Genesis has spent the last three years collecting samples of "solar wind" — highly charged subatomic particles streaming from the sun. Scientists believe the particles are identical to those that existed in space when the solar system formed, and analysis might yield clues about the origins of Earth and other planets.
The solar wind samples were collected on fragile plates of super-clean precious minerals (gold, sapphire, silicon and diamond) mounted to the outside of the Genesis craft. That's where the stunt pilots come in — retrieving those plates without jostling, breaking or contaminating them requires the deployment of a parafoil parachute and a delicate mid-air snag with a special hook mounted underneath a helicopter.
NASA found that the best pilots for the job are those used to carrying unusual cargo tethered at the end of long cables. Experience with delicate maneuvering in difficult conditions and tight spaces also helps. So NASA turned to Hollywood's stunt pilots. NPR's Howard Berkes witnessed a practice capsule recovery in the Utah desert this week.