Chasing New Horizons:
Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto
by Alan Stern & David Grinspoon
I’ve been waiting for this one! After pre-ordering months ago, this book arrived on its publication date: May 1 — and it’s spectacular.
In the early 1990s, I worked on the Pluto mission pre-project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, so obviously I have an interest in the subject. Yet I learned plenty from this book, written by my friend Alan Stern, the project’s Principal Investigator, and David Grinspoon, one of his “Pluto Underground” astrobiologist colleagues who happens to be a professional writer (and that really shows on every page).
In fact, I found I even had a lot of the details about the whole story wrong, in part because of being surrounded by JPL’s internal biases.
For instance, long before my boss came up with his own mission idea, Dr. Stern had been working in the background to get one going. As I learned as I read the book, rather than help get us to Pluto, JPL effectively got in the way, and almost derailed the Pluto exploration mission efforts that were already underway.
The Clock Was Ticking
There were all sorts of reasons to be in a hurry to get to the last unexplored planet. First, Pluto’s orbit around the sun takes 248 Earth years. At its closest, it comes in to 29.7 AU (Astronomical Units, the distance between the sun and Earth, or about 93 million miles; times 29.7 that’s about 2.76 billion miles, again, at perihelion — its closest!), and Pluto happened to hit that point in 1989. So each day after that, Pluto gets farther out and harder to reach, until it gets to 49.3 AU (about 4.6 billion miles) away. It won’t get to that point, aphelion, and start getting closer again, until the year 2114.
Second is the alignment of the planets, which helps spacecraft get to where they’re going. If a probe could be launched to Pluto no later than January 2006, and it’s launched on the biggest, fastest rocket we have, it could reach Pluto in just under 10 years. Yet it would only be that “short” a flight by getting a gravity assist from Jupiter. Miss that window and it would take 14 years to arrive — or more.
Could a spacecraft last that long? Could a budget last that long, with controllers and scientists doing “nothing” for a decade, before it even arrives? Would politicians get behind such a mission, knowing full well that the payback wouldn’t come for a decade — which wouldn’t help them get re-elected because they’d probably be out of office by then?
Plus, Stern didn’t work for NASA. Could he even get NASA behind such a mission?
Well, as the book points out, the public was certainly behind it — and as they heard Stern’s arguments for the mission, and promotion by the “Pluto Underground” that Stern helped organize, other space scientists finally got behind the mission too.
With my JPL boss accidentally stepping on Stern’s toes, NASA decided to let teams compete for a winner-takes-all funded mission. Obviously, NASA’s deep space expert, JPL, would put at least one team into the competition. Stern teamed up with the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University to go against them. It was far from assured Stern’s team could possibly win against the well-established, highly experienced, JPL.
But Stern had dedicated his life to try, despite one bitter disappointment after another.
Because politics got in the way again and again. Stern even had to fight the scientific establishment: why go to Pluto when there are fun things to do much closer, like go to Mars again, or Jupiter’s moons?
And every year of that long struggle, Pluto got farther and farther away.
Spoiler Alert: He Did It
This book reads like a race to the finish against all odds, a whodunnit, and a political thriller, yet is written so well that you can hardly wait to hear what comes next. “Spellbinding” doesn’t begin to cover it. It’s nail-biting, thrilling, filled with scientific curiosity, and has clear explanations of the science and project steps involved, all within just 320 pages.
As with pretty much every space exploration, there were huge surprises. The team even found two new moons around Pluto, even before the mission launched! That’s just one of the great stories within the story in the book. (Wait until you read the bit about why the two newly discovered moons got the names Nix and Hydra!)
And the mission is far from over, now that the New Horizons probe has zoomed past Pluto: next it will start exploring the mysterious Kuiper Belt, filled with thousands and thousands of small planetary bodies. Our solar system has 9 (or 8) planets? That’s not even close!
Anyone with any interest in Pluto, in space exploration, in science, or in the human struggle to learn something new will love this book: it gets my absolutely highest recommendation.
Available now from Amazon in hardback, Kindle, or audio (read by the authors), or at a book store near you …if there still are any!
Note: I was not paid for nor requested to do this review — I bought my own copy from Amazon. But I hope Alan will autograph it next time I see him! Maybe David too, if I can catch him.
- My blog post telling the story of helping Stern get through just one of his political hurdles — and my invitation to see the probe finally launched.
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