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KIDS SPACE - Amazing Stories - Getting Cassini to Kennedy Space Center

The final nuts and bolts were secured. The golden thermal shield donned and all inspections completed. As it stood proudly in building 171 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., the Cassini spacecraft seemed impatient to start its historic journey to Saturn.

Cassini spacecraft on wheels
Cassini Spacecraft on trailer.

After being placed on a custom-made trailer, the spacecraft underwent an extensive battery of tests simulating actual conditions in space. Informally known as "shake and bake," these rigorous tests were designed to expose the spacecraft's completed hardware to hazardous conditions similar to what the spacecraft would endure during launch and once in space -- from extremely cold temperatures to sweltering heat and radiation, to violent jostling vibrations, unpredictable and dangerous weather conditions.

The Cassini-Huygens mission, in the works for 15 years, is the result of an unprecedented international collaboration between three space agencies and 17 nations. Equipment and instruments came from all over the world, and more than 8,000 people contributed to its design and implementation.

In its last week inside High Bay 2 of the Spacecraft Assembly Facility -- the official name of the 21.3-meter (70-foot) tall building where Cassini was built -- thousands of JPL employees came to pay homage to a spacecraft carrying the most sophisticated instruments ever built.

Now that construction and testing of the spacecraft were completed, high fives and broad smiles were everywhere as the spacecraft awaited its departure from the laboratory.

Once at Edwards Air Force Base, the spacecraft was loaded inside a Boeing C-17 aircraft.
Once at Edwards Air Force Base, the spacecraft was loaded inside a Boeing C-17. (Boeing Photo)

One more task was still at hand, however: to transport the 2,150-kilogram (4,750-pound) spacecraft to Launch Complex 40 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Late in the evening on April, 14, 1997, an oversized truck carrying the precious cargo pulled out of Oak Grove Drive in Pasadena and slowly entered Interstate Highway 210. Heading west, the convoy began the 100-mile trip to Edwards Air Force base in the Mojave Desert.

"What a wonderful sight it was," remembers Jurrie van der Woude, a 38-year veteran Image Coordinator at JPL. "It was one of those moments you'll never forget."

van der Woude had documented every step of the spacecraft's construction, and that night was in charge of taking pictures of the spacecraft's departure. He knew that it would be the last time he and the film crew accompanying him would be able to see this marvel of engineering with their own eyes.

"Here we were, on the side of the freeway in the middle of the night with our cameras ready to take pictures of a big truck passing by. It was just a big truck to most people, but to me it was a wonderful sight and a very proud moment," he added smiling broadly under his big silver moustache. "I've seen that spacecraft many times up close, and to know it was finally on its way to Saturn gave me chills and a huge sense of pride. Saturn, that's a long, long way away."

The van driven by van der Woude followed the convoy to the Air Force base, speeding up ahead and capturing images as they waited for the truck to pass again and again.

Once at the base, Cassini was loaded onto a C17 aircraft. Two JPL engineers flew with the spacecraft to Florida to provide technical support.

The Huygens probe arrives at KSC (NASA/KSC)
The Huygens probe arrives at KSC (NASA/KSC)

Waiting for the Cassini spacecraft at NASA's Kennedy Space Center was the Huygens probe, built by the European Space Agency. The probe, flown in from Europe a few days earlier, was then integrated with the Cassini orbiter. Once the two spacecraft became one, technicians began the laborious loading of the school bus-size spacecraft into the Titan IV-B/Centaur launch vehicle.

Finally, in the early hours of Oct. 15, 1997, the mammoth rocket lit up the Florida night and began its 3 billion-kilometer (1.86 billion-mile) journey through the solar system to explore the mysterious planet Saturn with its fascinating rings and moons.

Among the most anxious of those waiting for the pictures and data from the Cassini-Huygens mission will be van der Woude, who is now retired, as well as the thousands of technicians, engineers and scientists from 18 countries that made this mission a reality. Both the Cassini orbiter and Huygens probe carry such sophisticated instruments and engineering systems that the data and information they return promise to be stunning.

The show will start in July 2004 and it will last at least four years. Don't miss it!