NASA Appoints CONTOUR Mission Investigation Team

Press Release From: NASA HQ
Posted: Monday, August 26, 2002

Administrator Sean O'Keefe today announced that Chief Engineer Theron M. Bradley Jr. will lead a team to investigate the apparent loss of the CONTOUR mission space probe. The investigation team will independently examine all aspects of the CONTOUR mission, which has been out of contact with controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Md., since a scheduled engine firing Aug. 15.

In May, Bradley joined the agency as Chief Engineer to provide independent technical review of NASA's programs and projects. He's a distinguished U.S. Navy engineer who was instrumental in the initial design of the nuclear propulsion plant for Nimitz class aircraft carriers and the advanced reactor design for Los Angeles class submarines. Bradley also served as a civilian with the U.S. Department of Energy and the Department of Defense in numerous leadership and management positions.

The team will include a team of internal NASA investigators from space science, as well as other aerospace disciplines, and external experts with extensive experience in accident examinations. The group is expected to report its initial findings to NASA Headquarters in six to eight weeks.

Among the team members selected to work with Bradley are retired Navy Admirals J. Paul Reason and Joseph Lopez.

Admiral Reason is a member of NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP). He's an aerospace consultant and former four-star Commander in Chief of the U.S. Navy's Atlantic Fleet. The ASAP was established by Congress in January 1967 after the Apollo 204 Command and Service Module spacecraft fire and is chartered to review, evaluate and advise on agency program activities, systems, procedures and management policies that contribute to risk, and to provide identification and assessment for the NASA Administrator.

Admiral Lopez is one of the two flag officers in the U.S. Navy to achieve the rank of four-star admiral after direct commission from enlisted service. The retired admiral is the former commander of NATO forces in southern Europe and has played a leadership role in numerous accident investigations. He currently directs Global Government Operations as an executive with Houston-based KBR (Kellogg, Brown & Root).

On Aug. 15, CONTOUR's STAR 30 solid-propellant rocket motor was programmed to ignite at 4:49 a.m. EDT, giving CONTOUR enough boost to escape Earth's orbit. At that time, CONTOUR was about 140 miles above the Indian Ocean and out of radio contact with controllers. The CONTOUR mission operations team at APL expected to regain contact at approximately 5:35 a.m. EDT to confirm the burn, but NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) antennas did not acquire a signal.

Since then, there has been no contact with CONTOUR. Commands pre-programmed into the spacecraft's flight computer system, designed to instruct the spacecraft to try various alternate methods of contacting Earth when contact is lost, also have not worked to date.

Images from a Spacewatch ground-based telescope at Kitt Peak, Ariz., show three objects at the location where CONTOUR was predicted to be, images which may indicate the spacecraft has broken apart. Mission controllers at APL will continue listening for signals from the spacecraft periodically until early December, when CONTOUR will come into a more favorable angle for receiving a signal from Earth.

CONTOUR is a Discovery-class mission to explore the nucleus of comets. The Principal Investigator is Dr. Joseph Veverka of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., who selected APL to build the spacecraft and manage the mission for NASA.

Additional information about CONTOUR is available on the Internet at:

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