Spacecraft will carry memory of Sagamore native
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- When the New Horizons spacecraft blasts off Tuesday on its way to Pluto, it will carry the memory of one of the pioneers of modern space travel.
As NASA begins the countdown, a special ceremony will be held to honor Sagamore native Daniel Sarokon, described by space program officials as one of the most influential people in the history of space travel.
Sarokon passed away at his home in Cocoa Beach Jan. 1. He was 78.
Sarokon, who began his engineering career just as scientists were developing rocket engines, was in on the ground floor of the budding technology and worked at several companies before heading to General Dynamics, one of the country's largest defense contractors, according to his wife, Elthelreda.
"He absolutely loved his job," she said. "At the time, it didn't seem like it was a big deal, but now that you look back at it, he was helping to write history."
Sarokon's first space launch was a craft named Surveyor, which was the first vehicle on the moon, his wife said. After that, he was launch conductor for 29 more lunar and planetary missions using the Atlas and Centaur rockets.
Before getting involved in rockets and space travel, Sarokon was an average teenager, his wife said.
"We dated in high school, and then Daniel went to fight in World War II. When he came back, we started dating again."
After the war, Sarokon went to college and got his first job at Bell Aircraft in Buffalo, N.Y., where he became involved with the first rocket engines being developed, his wife said.
During his 30 years at General Dynamics, Sarokon was credited with 79 launches and was awarded the NASA Public Service Medal for exceptional management and leadership in the Atlas/Centaur and Titan/Centaur operations crew.
Julie Andrews, spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin, which is launching the New Horizons on an Atlas V rocket, said, "Daniel's years of experience with Atlas paved the way for the modern era of space exploration."
"It is fitting that the New Horizons mission be dedicated to a man whose contributions made planetary exploration possible," Andrews said.
Pluto is the solar system's last unexplored planet, 3 billion miles from Earth. When the 7-foot-tall, 1,054-pound, piano-sized spacecraft reaches its destination, as early as 2015, the spacecraft will study the ninth planet's large moon, Charon, as well as two other moons just discovered last year.
Pluto, a tiny, icy misfit of a planet -- some say it's not a planet at all -- neither resembles the rocky bodies of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars nor the giant gaseous planets of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. For years after its discovery 75 years ago, it was considered a planetary oddball.
But in recent years, astronomers have come to realize that Pluto's class of planetary bodie --ice dwarfs -- isn't so odd after all. In fact, ice dwarfs are the most populous group in the solar system. Now, scientists have a chance to learn more about them and the origins of the planetary system.
The $700 million mission should provide scientists with a better understanding of the Kuiper Belt, a mysterious region that lies beyond Neptune at the outer limits of the planetary system.
Besides being home to Pluto, the Kuiper Belt is believed to hold thousands of comets and icy planetary objects that make up a third zone of the solar system, the rocky and gaseous planets making up the other two. Scientists believe they can learn about the evolution of the solar system by studying the Kuiper Belt because it possesses debris left over from the formation of the outer solar system. Depending on its fitness after arriving at Pluto, New Horizons will attempt to identify one or two objects in the Kuiper Belt.
When New Horizons reaches Jupiter in 13 months, it will use that giant planet's gravity as a slingshot, shaving five years off the trip to Pluto. During the trip between Jupiter and Pluto, the probe will go into hibernation, closing down most systems to conserve power. It will send weekly "beeps" back to Earth, providing updates on the vehicle's condition.
If the spacecraft is unable to launch during its monthlong window that closes Feb. 14, the next opportunity is in February 2007, but that would push back an arrival at Pluto to 2020 because New Horizons wouldn't be able to get the gravity assist from Jupiter then.
Powered by nuclear fuel that will produce less energy than is used by two 100-watt lightbulbs, New Horizons is loaded with seven instruments that will be able to photograph the surfaces of Pluto and Charon and examine Pluto's atmospheric composition and structure. Two of the cameras, Alice and Ralph, are named for the bickering couple from television's "The Honeymooners."
The spacecraft has a thermos-bottle design that will allow it to stay at room temperature. Tucked inside the probe will be a U.S. flag and a CD containing about a half-million names of citizens who signed up on a NASA Web site.
Sarokon's wife and several family members will gather at the launch site for the dedication and to watch as the spacecraft sets a record for being the fastest spacecraft ever launched, zooming past the moon in nine hours and reaching Jupiter in just over a year at a speed nearly 100 times that of a jetliner.