The COBE dewar, a 660 liter liquid helium cryostat, provided a stable 1.4 Kelvin environment for the Far Infrared Absolute Spectrophotometer (FIRAS) and the Diffuse Infrared Background Experiment (DIRBE).

TThe COBE dewar, a 660 liter liquid helium cryostat, provided a stable 1.4 Kelvin environment for the Far Infrared Absolute Spectrophotometer (FIRAS) and the Diffuse Infrared Background Experiment (DIRBE). Image Credit: NASA

How did the universe begin? Humans have asked the question for millennia. The designers of the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite proposed to provide hard evidence to support some longstanding hypotheses about the nature of the early universe. COBE’s instruments were built to measure two types of radiationdiffuse infrared and microwave radiationwhich many physicists, including the COBE Project Scientist, believed to be artifacts of the Big Bang, the moment when the universe burst into existence.

COBE was slated to launch on the space shuttle in 1989 from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The shuttle would place the satellite at an altitude of 300 kilometers, and an on-board propulsion system would then raise it to a circular 900-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit.

The team that Project Manager Roger Mattson and Deputy Project Manager McCarthy managed made significant progress. By the beginning of 1986, the COBE spacecraft was all but complete and proceeding smoothly toward its planned launch on the shuttle.

The loss of the space shuttle Challenger 73 seconds after liftoff on January 28, 1986, changed everything. The shuttle programs future was now uncertain, and this had dramatic consequences across NASA, not only for the human space flight program. The shuttle was NASA’s primary means of delivering payloads to space, and other launch alternatives had dwindled. The morning after the accident, the COBE team was forced back to the drawing board.
“We were abandoned,” said McCarthy. “This was the worst possible thing that could happen.” The project manager called a meeting of everyone involved with the project. “I pulled everybody together, and we decided to keep going. My job was to get [COBE] into space, whatever the way.”

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