A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication

GLAST launch celebration

07/02/08

No glow of laptops aided latecomers who picked their way through the darkened aisles of Stanford Linear Accelerator's Panofsky auditorium on Monday. Free from notepads, pens, and computers, audience members understood that it was time to celebrate. The event recognized the successful launch of the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope, or GLAST, on June 11 and its continued smooth progress into orbit. The launch was a culmination of 16 years of hard work, ingenuity, and large-scale collaboration--now crowned by Nolan Gasser's musical tribute. Filling the room to near capacity, colleagues from around SLAC delighted in the composition for brass quintet, accompanied by a video presentation produced by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

The nine-minute video took viewers through depictions of humankind's astronomical legacy, interspersed with footage from GLAST's own history. A regal melody accompanied the telescope's blast-off and computer-animated flight. Once in orbit around the earth, the cube-shaped detector elicited sounds of awe as it bared itself from the rocket's sheaths and, bird-like, began to unfold its own long solar panels.

Composed to celebrate the science of the GLAST mission, the GLAST Prelude awaits a further installment in the form of a symphony.

SLAC director Persis Drell lauded the score as "classy" and confessed that she had never before been involved with an experiment "that inspired music of any sort, ever." Dubbing the launch successful and a huge milestone she remarked, "It's very magical to think something you contributed to is there staring at the heavens, scanning for cataclysmic events and looking for gamma rays."

But whatever scientific adrenaline that had been coursing through the collaboration's veins for days had been fired by fears that were also very real. As Drell admitted, it was "terrifying [to take] an instrument people have worked on for years and put it on a bomb." She continued: "Experiments are scary but very few experiments go through the singularity of a launch. It's very nice to be on the other side." It was the continued presence of this trepidation in the room that allowed her reassurance to hit a waggish note: "I promise that it's in the night sky if you know where to look...right, guys?"

Peter Michelson, principal investigator for the Large-Area Telescope, the primary instrument on GLAST, took over to briefly review the project's history, "vibrant international team," and current impact. "The lab is working in space and it's a joy to see," he announced. Showcasing a slide of headlines clipped from a copious collection of global newspapers, he declared, "the world has noticed as well."

Next came remarks from NASA Project Scientist for GLAST Steve Ritz, who applauded the mission's teamwork and the past week's relative quiet. "It's the technical issues that you don't hear about that testify to the great job that everyone is doing," he said. Noting the brilliance and creativity of those involved, he continued, "The fact that things have gone so swimmingly is really a testament to that."

NASA Program Manager for GLAST Kevin Grady addressed the assembly through a telecom connection and, like Drell, seemed unable to fully revel in the success without recalling other harrowing impressions. Speaking of the last few years' unexpected challenges, he said, "as it turned out, we had a lot more opportunities to excel...This spacecraft has put a little more gray hair in me."

Following the celebratory talks, the audience spilled out into a foyer filled with GLAST souvenirs: full-color booklets, stickers, graph paper sticky pads, collapsible 3-D paper sculptures, and pin-up renderings of the telescope.

Outside, attendees enjoyed a sunny lawn party complete with rocket-shaped popsicles and a space-themed soundtrack including David Bowie's Space Oddity. Colleagues shared personal congratulations, pondered blown-up images of team members and rocket loading stages, and talked about the exciting science to come.

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