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Launch Memories

Posted on August 12, 2021

The First Maneuver

John Wirzburger

Spacecraft Systems Engineer

Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory

Seeing Parker Solar Probe on the launch pad was a welcome sight and a long time coming. I was lead engineer of the Guidance and Control (G&C) team, which dedicated a lot of time and effort verifying the algorithms that would control the spacecraft through the harsh environment near the Sun. And like most spacecraft G&C designs, the first time it could really be tested would be after it came off the launch vehicle. The team worked tirelessly and, come launch day, we were ready.

At launch, in the mission operations center at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, the G&C console was next to the Telecommunications console. After watching the launch vehicle carry Parker Solar Probe aloft, we transitioned to the third-stage booster rocket. Our Telecomm folks began updating us immediately, as the trajectory was right on target and we locked on the signal quickly.

Then the real work began. After launch we had one week to prepare and execute our first maneuver to place the spacecraft on the correct course to Venus – for its first gravity assist – and then on to the Sun. Had we missed it, we might not have been able to get back to our desired closest-approach trajectory. All this planning had to happen while we were “waking up” and commissioning the entire spacecraft, incorporating even the smallest operational details into our models as they revealed themselves in real time.

After four long (but strangely quick) days of updating models and simulating the maneuver, I walked into the mission operations center confident that we were ready. Watching the signal come back from Parker Solar Probe, I knew the burn was on target. Smiles grew on faces across the room. We were on the way to the Sun!

I slept well that night. After a torturous week of checking, double checking and tweaking, I awoke the next morning to the headline “Parker Solar Probe executes a near-perfect burn.” Near perfect ... I’ll take that!

The Parker Solar Probe Guidance and Control team gathers in a Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory clean room shortly before the spacecraft was shipped to the launch site. Pictured are: (back, from left) Sarah Flanigan, Adam Byerly, Robin Vaughan, Ty Burney, John Wirzburger, Jinho Kim, Gabe Rogers; (middle) Stella Shapiro, Marissa Reynolds, Hong Kang, Gail Oxton, Wen-Jong Shyong, Emil Superfin, Brent Duffy; (front) Madeline Fosbury, Ryland Newman, Brett Shapiro.

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