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The Beginning, End, and Future of the Kepler Mission

Four years ago, the Monday before last, I was standing on a small spit of land at Kennedy Space Flight Center. It was dark, I was cold (having foolishly assumed that Florida in May would be warm), but above all, I was nervous.

Kepler was about to launch.

A few weeks before, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory had gone into the drink, done in by a failed fairing on the same kind of launch vehicle that now held Kepler. We’d been told it would be fine, and we’d been cleared for launch, but I was still nervous. I wasn’t the only one– I remember Jonathan Fortney literally hopping up and down next to me in anticipation in those last few moments before the countdown. I had only joined the Kepler team a few months before, after finishing grad school and going to work with Gibor Basri at Berkeley. I was new enough that I’d missed the order for an official Kepler launch day hat, so Kepler’s wonderful Deputy PI Dave Koch gave me one of his.

My nervousness wasn’t helped by the fact that the day before, a number of us had gone on a tour of Kennedy Space Flight Center that featured a reel full of terrifying footage of early failed launches (I guess before you see the Saturn V control room, they want to impress the risks of exploring space upon you). Soren Meibom and I exchanged nauseated looks at we watched grainy footage of one rocket after the other exploding on the screens of the Saturn V anteroom, grumbling and reassuring one another that it would probably be fine.

Most of the planets Kepler has identified so far are the size of Saturn or larger. But there are a handful that appear to be very similar in size to Earth and Mars, as shown in this figure. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Most of the planets Kepler has identified so far are the size of Saturn or larger. But there are a handful that appear to be very similar in size to Earth and Mars, as shown in this figure. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The night of the Kepler launch, I stood out in the spectator area feeling like I could almost see the gears of my life turning. Six years before then, in 2002, I had been out in similar chill and dark at Kennedy, shivering in a previous emergency-purchase hoodie* to watch the launch of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. In that case, the launch was the culmination of a project for me– close to the last thing I would do before graduating from college and heading off to grad school. It was later that summer that I would meet Kepler’s PI Bill Borucki for the first time, at a meeting of the SPIE. I’d never been to a professional conference before, and so I stood anxiously next to my poster** half-hoping and half-terrified that someone would come talk to me. The person who came by to talk to me about my poster was Bill. Though I didn’t know who he was at the time, and certainly had no idea I’d ever be working with him, I clearly recall our interaction. I was left with an impression of bulldog tenacity, which I only later came to appreciate was the driving force behind the successful launch of Kepler. 

You can read more about this post on Lucianne Walkowicz's blog.  

Written by Lucianne Walkowicz, Henry Norris Russell Fellow in the Department of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton, a 2012 TED Senior Fellow, and soon-to-be Adler astronomer.

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