« Back to The PI's Perspective Changes in Latitude
October 2005
With the passing of each day in September, one could feel the season changing. In Maryland and Colorado, where I have spent about equal amounts of time the past year, the mornings are noticeably cooler and the leaves have begun to fall. So too, as the days and weeks of September passed, New Horizons planned to enter a new season as well — its launch campaign.

By the end of the third week of the month, all of the testing that we'd planned to complete at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center had wrapped up. Simply put, there wasn't much more we could do for New Horizons in Maryland — where the spacecraft had been born, and where it had been thoroughly tested.

After a year in assembly and initial test at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL), and then 14 weeks of environmental testing at Goddard Space Flight Center, it was time to move New Horizons south, to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and Cape Canaveral.

New Horizons received its "GO" to ship to the Cape at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 22, after a formal, in-depth 11-hour review of testing status and shipping plans that NASA calls the "Pre-Ship Review." It had taken us just 46 months from proposal selection to reach this point.

The Atlas rocket for New Horizons will be erected at Launch Complex 41, the same place where launch vehicle for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (above) came together. (NASA Photo)
(Click on the image for a larger version.)

Because of advance planning, it was possible to begin moving ground support equipment down the KSC the same day that we received permission to ship. APL and Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) personnel also began to move, some by car, some by air.

By Friday, Sept. 23, a receiving crew was in place at KSC and had set up all of the necessary facilities needed to care for New Horizons when it arrived. KSC personnel played a big role in making this happen, beginning literally three years before with a series of planning meetings that described every detail of shipping and receiving, the activities to prepare New Horizons for launch, and contingency preparations (such as a hurricane plan for sheltering our baby in case the Cape was hit by a late-season monster storm).

To prepare it for shipment, New Horizons was placed in its sturdy, clean-room-like shipping container on Thursday, Sept. 22. The container was then put under a continuous purge by dry, surgically clean nitrogen gas designed to keep the spacecraft systems and instrument payload clean, dry, and in a pristine condition.

On Friday evening, the shipment of the spacecraft itself began. This carefully orchestrated operation was overseen by the spacecraft's lead mechanical engineer and shipping czar, Steve Vernon, who led a roughly 15-person APL shipping crew.

The first leg of the journey was by caravan to Andrews Air Force Base, southeast of Washington, D.C. Our six-vehicle caravan, replete with police escort, spacecraft support equipment, a backup nitrogen purge system, technicians, camera crew, and PI, left NASA Goddard at 8 p.m.

New Horizons itself rode in its shipping container, on an "air ride" cushioned truck. As the truck pulled out of Building 29's westward facing loading dock, I noticed the constellations and realized Pluto was somewhere in the waning twilight nearly straight ahead on the horizon. A fitting departure, I thought, "We're kind of starting our long trip to Pluto right here."

The 35-minute transit to Andrews — in traffic — was probably the most dangerous and least controllable step of the journey. Although the transit went well, a moment of "excitement" was provided by some (forever to be anonymous) D.C. driver who swept across three lanes of traffic without notice, sliding between our lead police car and the air ride truck with our one-of-a-kind, $200+ million baby in it. That fellow doesn't know it, but he could have single-handedly botched the exploration of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. Predictably, our police escorts couldn't break off from the convoy to give that yahoo a ticket, or even a warning. He was in and out of our lives in under 20 seconds, vanishing into the dark and the nighttime traffic.