NEAR-Shoemaker, 1996

William Boynton

For the NEAR Shoemaker mission—NEAR stood for Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous—I didn’t build the instrument, but we worked with the John Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. So it was APL rather than JPL. They actually built a very nice spacecraft and when the mission was all over, they decided rather than just abandoning the spacecraft they would actually let it touch down on the surface of the asteroid even though it wasn’t really designed to do this. But there was so little gravity on the asteroid, which is kind of a small body, that they got away with doing this.

Dan Goldin, the head of NASA, was actually very nervous and didn’t want to say that they were landing for fear the public would get their hopes up too much, but they went ahead with it and it was very successful.

After they landed they weren’t sure really what to do, but they landed with enough sunlight that they could keep the solar panels in light where the spacecraft could work for a while. The evening that we found out that we had a successful landing, I said, “Hey, can we turn on the gamma ray spectrometer? Because we’ll get much better data being right on the surface than being well up in orbit, pretty far away from it.”

We had a meeting the next morning and everybody said, “Yeah, it’s worth a try, let’s try it.” So they turned the instrument on and in fact we got much better data back from being on the surface than we had in orbit.