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The end of Genesis

From the Wolf Blitzer Reports staff

Wolf Blitzer Reports
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Space Exploration

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Genesis capsule plunging and tumbling out of control toward the Utah desert wasn't how the mission was supposed to end

Up to this point, the mission had been a success.

Launched in 2001, Genesis spent more than two years gathering samples of solar wind -- which normally doesn't reach Earth's surface.

It's been three decades since scientists received their last extraterrestrial samples courtesy of Apollo missions to the moon. They were hoping new samples collected by the craft's specially designed tiles would yield fresh information about the makeup of the sun, as well as the origins of the solar system.

The plan was for a mortar round onboard Genesis to deploy a parachute to slow the craft after entering Earth's atmosphere. Then a helicopter, piloted by a Hollywood stuntman, was to swoop in and snatch the parachute and Genesis on a hook, delivering it safely to earth.

The stuntman was there and the chopper was there. But the parachute failed to deploy, and as stunned controllers and a national TV audience looked on, Genesis slammed into the Utah desert at about 193 miles an hour.

And although no one was hurt, officials say there are still safety concerns.

"Our first immediate objective is to ensure our ground teams are in no danger from any potential unexploded ordnance in the payload as we save the space craft. There might be unexploded ordnance because that's what would have deployed parachutes," said NASA's Andrew Dantzer at a news conference Wednesday.

As for the precious cargo onboard, it's too soon to know if any is usable.

But there is some hope.

"It was actually surprising how little damage was done considering the velocity of the impact," said NASA Flight Operations Chief Roy Haggard.

Still, there is no masking the disappointment among those who've spent years working on the project.

"It's a difficult moment right now," said lead investigator Don Burnett.

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