Laurie Leshin needed a moment alone, so she moved away from the group, lifted her head and reflected on the wonder above her.
It was approximately 9 a.m. Tuesday morning, and Leshin — an ASU alum and the director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory — stood underneath the Psyche spacecraft, reflecting on the journey that brought the Psyche team to this moment.
“I had a little quiet reflection and gratitude for all of the human hands, minds and hearts that have gone into making Psyche a reality,” said Leshin, who was at the launch site with a dozen people, including Elkins-Tanton. “We send robots into space, but they’re built by humans. It’s a very human endeavor.”
An endeavor, Leshin added, that was unlike any other NASA mission because it was interrupted and delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There is no mission, I think, within NASA that had to grapple with the impacts of COVID more than Psyche,” said Leshin, who graduated from ASU with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and later was a faculty member in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Their last review before starting to assemble the spacecraft happened one week before COVID hit and shut everything down. … It’s one of the big reasons that we had to delay the launch by a year.
“So having the team address the issues and now be here today ... it’s incredibly satisfying.”
A few minutes before Leshin spoke, Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, described Psyche as “truly a mission of discovery. We are going to visit a place that we’ve never (experienced) before.”
A Psyche display stands next to a U.S. flag at Kennedy Space Center on Oct. 10, with various buildings and the launch site in the background. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News
It’s that discovery, that unknown that had Elkins-Tanton smiling during a noon briefing shown on NASA television.
“There aren’t that many completely unexplored types of worlds in our solar system for us to go see,” said Elkins-Tanton, a Regents Professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. “So, that is what is so exciting about this.”
Scientists believe the asteroid could be part of a metal-rich interior of a planetesimal, a building block of a rocky planet. But, as Elkins-Tanton freely admitted, “We don’t know what it’s going to look like. We’re going to be surprised.”
Elkins-Tanton said she has asked scientists all over the world what they expect Psyche to be made of. One person stood up and said, “It’s not the Death Star (from Star Wars) because it’s too small. And it’s not the Death Star prototype because it’s too big.”
“I’ve had so much fun asking that question,” Elkins-Tanton said.
Whatever Psyche is — the metal core of an early planetesimal or material that was formed near the sun — it is sure to mystify and delight Psyche’s team.
“I think there’s a very good chance that it’s going to be outside of our imaginings,” Elkins-Tanton said. “And that is my fondest hope.”
A little more than six miles down the Saturn Causeway and just beyond Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex’s Orbit Cafe and Milky Way Ice Cream Shop, Psyche Student Collaborations interns staffed tables as part of ASU’s Psyche mission outreach.
At one table, visitors were invited to write a Post-it note saying what they would be doing at different milestones along the Psyche mission timeline. In 2028, one year before the spacecraft is scheduled to begin its first orbit of Psyche, someone wrote, “Mastering a triple standing backflip.” In 2031, upon completion of the mission, Cadet Toney wrote, “I hope to be in the Air Force.”
People could touch a small asteroid model, make a Psyche face mask, see and collect Psyche Inspired artwork in the form of comics and coloring sheets, take home Psyche swag and ask questions of the five ASU Psyche interns who wore Psyche-delic T-shirts with “16” on the back, signifying that Psyche was the 16th asteroid discovered.
“I’m a nerd, so this is fun for me,” said visitor Evan Duggan, a boat builder from Rhode Island. “I’ve been interested in the asteroid for a while. I see it as the next step into space.
“It’s also just fun to talk to people who know about this. Most people don’t.”
Samantha Beauchaine, a third-year ASU student majoring in geological sciences and the lead on @MissionToPsyche’s social media accounts on X (formerly Twitter), Instagram and Facebook, said she had met people from all over the world at the Psyche Student Collaborations exhibit.
“This week has been amazing, just inspiring,” Beauchaine said. “To be around so many people that are into space, and then just teaching others about Psyche. There’s a lot of people who don’t know anything (about Psyche) — it’s just nice to kind of inform them and get them excited about the mission.”
ASU Psyche Student Collaborations intern Samantha Beauchaine, a third-year geological sciences student and the lead on @MissionToPsyche’s social media accounts, talks with visitors at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on Oct. 10 about the impending launch. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News
Tristan Tierce, a fourth-year student with a double major in art studies and business entrepreneurship, manages the psyche.asu.edu website and creates the annual coffee-table book for Psyche Inspired, as well as the virtual gallery.
As he looked around at the adults and children stopping by the tables, Tierce said he was blown away by the turnout.
“Walking into the Kennedy Space Center for the first time was really inspiring, and we’ve done a lot of outreach events (in the past), but seeing the amount of people here for this has been really cool,” Tierce said. “I’ve had people come up to the table, English is not their first language, or they don’t even really speak English at all, but we’re able to communicate and give them a little bit of information just through whatever art we have here. That crosses boundaries.”
Psyche’s scheduled launch was still two days away, but as Beauchaine took a moment away from the exhibits to think about the swirl of emotions she would feel at liftoff, her eyes became misty.
“I’ve been waiting for that day since I learned about the mission,” she said. “Now that it’s happening … I know I’m just a student, but I live for this now. I can’t wait. I’ll probably be crying. It just gets me emotional.”
Imagine how Leshin will feel. She said that when she taught at ASU, she “dreamed of the day” the university would be front and center on a NASA mission.
That day has come. And, Leshin said, it could come again.
“Being in charge of an entire mission just shows the depth of capability at ASU and really positions it well to win future competitions,” Leshin said. “And we here at JPL are so excited to partner with ASU on some of those future mission opportunities.”
If there’s a single number that defines the work, commitment and time that has gone into Psyche, it’s this: 4,474.
As of Wednesday morning, that’s how many days Elkins-Tanton and Ben Weiss, Psyche’s deputy principal investigator and magnetometer lead, have been working on the mission — from conception 12 years ago to less than 24 hours before Psyche’s scheduled 10:16 a.m. launch Florida time on ThursdayPsyche's scheduled launch date of Thursday, Oct. 12, was postponed to Friday, Oct. 13, due to weather..
Check that: 10:16 and 49 seconds. Yes, the launch time is that precise.
“So many emotions and thoughts at this moment,” Elkins-Tanton said. “But one thing about the miracle is that humans can do these mega projects that take thousands of people, and no single person actually understands how the whole thing works. And the launch is actually the starting line of the next marathon. So we’re really excited to see what comes next and eventually to be at this asteroid and to share these images with the world.”
The work these last 12 years has led to a quiet but sure confidence about the mission, both in terms of the launch and the six years before the spacecraft reaches the Psyche asteroid.
At 10 a.m. Wednesday, David Williams, a research professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and co-investigator and deputy imager lead on Psyche, explained Psyche’s mission and journey to a group of people at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
David Williams, a research professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and co-investigator and deputy imager lead on Psyche, talks about the spacecraft and the asteroid at a public talk at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on Oct. 11. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News
After completing his speech, he asked for questions. A hand was raised.
“How will Psyche navigate through the asteroid field?” a man asked.
Williams replied by invoking one of the most beloved science-fiction movies of all time.
“We have knowledge of the positions of quite a few of the largest objects,” he said. “Unlike the movie ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ we won’t be zigzagging around asteroids. The asteroid belt is not that dense. As my old astrophysics professor used to say, space is a big place. We’ve sent many spacecraft through the main asteroid belt, and never once have they encountered any pebble or damaging object. So flying through the asteroid belt is really not a hazardous undertaking.”
Later in the day, at a 1 p.m. media briefing, Henry Stone, project manager for the mission, left little doubt about Psyche’s readiness.
“I want to start off by letting you know that the spacecraft is completely ready to go,” he said. “It’s been fueled and fully integrated onto the rocket. The rocket’s now upright and vertical. The final version of the flight software has already been loaded on the vehicle. The final set of flight parameters that are necessary for launch have been loaded. So, it’s ready to go.”
That the launch was delayed by a week — it had been set for Oct. 5 — to allow “verifications” of parameters used by the spacecraft’s nitrogen cold gas thrusters was, as Stone said, further proof that the Psyche team has done everything humanly possible to make the mission a success.
Had the problem with the cold gas thrusters not been discovered, Stone said, there would have been a potential risk of overheating and damaging the thrusters.
“We didn’t have to do the extra testing that we were doing in preparation for operations,” Stone added. “But we wanted to do as much as we could before launch to ensure the success of the mission. It’s a huge investment. We have a personal commitment for many, many years, and we all want to see it succeed. So I’m very proud of the team for tracking it down and the heroic effort to address the issue in the time we did.”
Unfortunately, as the skies darkened over Kennedy Space Center and a few raindrops fell, all were reminded that there was one thing NASA couldn’t control: the weather.
Twenty-one hours before the scheduled launch, Arlena Moses, launch weather officer for the U.S. Space Force, said there was a 20% “go” probability because of a Thursday morning forecast that called for scattered thunderstorms in the morning with the potential for severe thunderstorms. Also concerning: winds upward of 25 mph.
A slide from the prelaunch news conference on Oct. 11 details some of the weather concerns. Later Wednesday evening, the official word came that launch was pushed to Friday morning. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News
Moses said the heaviest rains could fall north of Launch Pad 39A, but “we still will have a very unstable atmosphere. There still may be some storms and rainfall around, and probably lots of cloud cover. All of those things that we have concern for with our rocket launches.”
Tim Dunn, senior launch director for NASA’s Launch Services Program, said there would be a 5 p.m. meeting Wednesday to obtain the latest weather forecast and determine whether it would be prudent to bring in the launch team and begin preparing for a Thursday launch.
At 6:53 p.m., word came down from NASA’s official X (formerly Twitter) account: Psyche’s scheduled launch would be pushed to Friday at 10:19 a.m. local time.
A disappointment, no question. But as Nicola Fox, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, pointed out, the Psyche asteroid was discovered in 1852.
After 171 years, and with the launch window open until Oct. 25, what’s another day or two?