Inside the Epic Mission to Pluto

by Alan Stern & David Grinspoon



320pp/$28.00/May 2018

Chasing New Horizons

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

When Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, he did so against all odds. Tombaugh was working from calculations made by Percival Lowell which were based on completely erroneous assumptions. He was using equipment that was functioning at the very limits of being able to detect the distant planet. His technique of looking at tiny dots in a blink comparator was tedious and prone to error. Yet on February 18, 1930, his hard work paid off with the discovery of the ninth planet.

When Alan Stern and his team flew New Horizons past Pluto on July 14, 2015, they did so against all odds. In Chasing New Horizons, written by Stern and David Grinspoon, they detail the false starts, the long odds, the trials and tribulations they had to go through to accomplish this historic mission.

Despite knowing the outcome (so far) of the mission, Stern and Grinspoon manage to build suspense throughout the book, describing the obstacles they had to overcome, whether political, scientific, bureaucratic, or technical. It is clear that rather than reading about New Horizons, it is possible that a different mission would have flown to Pluto, although the most likely scenario as depicted by Stern and Grinspoon is that we should still be waiting for a mission to Pluto.

The book follows Stern from his start in interplanetary research through his decision to work towards the exploration of Pluto. Of course, Stern isn’t alone in wanting to send a probe to Pluto and he discusses the other potential programs, along with their strengths and weaknesses. As each proposal ends in rejection and heartbreak, Stern discusses which parts of them will continue to the next round of the possibility of making it to Pluto, even as the rules for getting there seem to be constantly in flux.

Stern is very clearly the hero of the book, but he gives credit to the many, many member so his team. New Horizons was, and still is, very much a team effort, not just of the scientists who appear on television, but also of the technicians who built it, the bureaucrats who championed it when it looked like the project would be cancelled, and thousands of other unsung heroes who Stern and Grinspoon may not name in the book, but whose efforts are clearly appreciated and respected.

The book builds on the stakes for getting to Pluto and at times trigger strong emotional responses, although none moreso than when Stern discusses plans, and the family’s reactions, to the idea of including some of Tombaugh’s remains on board the spacecraft which will fly by the planet he discovered.

As the authors point out repeatedly throughout the book, getting the funding to build and launch New Horizons, and building the spacecraft, which was experimental in a number of ways, would be practically meaningless if it failed to wake up for its passage through the Pluto system or if it had been struck by space debris before it could send back information. Stern carefully built in failsafes to increase his chances of getting at least some data back. And in the book he shares some of the initial discoveries and photos from the flyby. He also points out that even as New Horizons is preparing for its January 2019 flyby of 2014 MU69, now known as Ultima Thule, the data it sent back from its few hours in the Pluto system is enough to keep a team of scientists busy for a lifetime.

The New Horizons mission completes the exploration begun with the 1959 launch success of the Society Luna 2 probe. Humanity has launched probes, orbiters, or fly-bys of all of the classical planets as well Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. While Voyager continues to probe deeper into interstellar space, New Horizons is preparing to begin the exploration of the Kuiper Belt, a region of space which was only conjectural when Stern began his quest to fly by Pluto in 1989.

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