Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto by Alan Stern & David Grinspoon
To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect of Chasing New Horizons (2018). Sure, a trip to Pluto is exciting and intriguing, and the results that have already come back are thrilling. But I wasn’t sure that a book about devising the actual mission would be — the planning, the meetings, the engineering, the pushing of buttons and waiting while radio signals traveled for hours after which one could push more buttons. But Alan Stern, leader of the NASA mission, and David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist who had some minor involvement, managed to pull it off. I don’t know if I’d call it “thrilling,” but inspiring? Fascinating? Exciting? Tense? All that and more.
The story opens with a phone to Stern telling him NASA had lost contact with the spaceship, this after nine years of flight and only a week before the flyby was due to happen. On his way over, Stern “couldn’t help but think of NASA’s ill-fated Mars Observer … [that also went silent, just three days reaching Mars … It had blown up.” But this would be worse. Mars has had a host of visitors from Earth; this was Pluto’s first and most likely only for decades, if not longer. New Horizons, Stern feared, would “become a poster child for dashed dreams and failure.”
It’s no spoiler to say that New Horizons did not blow up, did not become a symbol of utter failure and busted dreams. And I of course knew that even as I was reading this. But somehow, cutting away to the main part of the story (as one long flashback) before we find out whether (really “how”) NASA regained contact still felt tense. It shouldn’t have worked as a tension builder, but it did. And that’s pretty much true of all of Chasing New Horizons. It all just works.
The book moves along at a fast but comprehensible clip. Early in the story the necessary context and background — prior space missions, the discovery of Pluto and its naming, finding out Pluto had a moon — are effectively and concisely covered. The sheer chutzpah of thinking we could send a spacecraft billions of miles away is nicely conveyed, as is the passion of those early believers who had to push NASA to even consider such a seemingly outlandish proposal.
Or, it turns out, proposals, since the book details the fierce competition between multiple teams trying to reach Pluto. A literal competition, since NASA took plans and then would choose only one. You’d think the science, or maybe the cost, would be the deciding factors, but some of the more fascinating tidbits are the ways politics, personalities, professional rivalries, and the like played major roles in the back and forths and ups and downs before Stern’s proposal/team (an underdog group to the much more established Jet Propulsion Laboratory) was finally chosen. The authors don’t shy away from some of the more petty activity, or even out and out charges of attempted sabotage (not of equipment but of mission control). Senator Barbara Mikulski is one of the heroes of the story (later Stern notes she should have a Pluto feature named after her), while new NASA head Dan Goldin comes across as painfully naïve when he says he wants a Pluto mission to bring back a sample in under ten years and for less than a 100 million.
There are more than a few tense moments in the pre-mission stretch, including the whole idea being canceled more than once. The anxiety gets ramped up by a ticking clock, caused by how far away Pluto is — the launch window for a successful mission was pretty tight; fail on this one, or get it overly delayed, and NASA would have to wait decades for the next propitious time. While all this is going on there’s a fun but sharply delivered digression into the whole controversy over whether or not Pluto was even a planet any more, based on the new discoveries of large bodies out in the Kuiper Belt. Frustrating as that was for the team, it did actually help them as tacking on a promise to explore one such body gave added weight to their proposal.
Wisely, we don’t delve into too much engineering detail, though we get enough to know what instruments were aboard and what they did, as well as how advanced they were, the difficulties of building machines that work in the harshness of outer space, and the incredible diligence that has to go into testing them. After all, one can’t just pop out and fix something that breaks when the machine is a few billion miles away.
Every time Chasing New Horizons’ story seems to be in cruise control, there’s another little twist or turn to rev up the interest level. The aforementioned argument over Pluto’s status. The discovery of more moons beyond Charon. The worry over a debris field in the area that could cause catastrophic failure. Tough decisions that had to be made regarding mission priorities. And then, of course, that loss of contact.
The problem was of course eventually solved (with people working days without sleep, or the luckier ones sleeping on air mattresses in hallways), and then the book moves into sheer wonder mode as New Horizons begins to send back high-res photos. Here is Stern on that moment:
This wasn’t another fuzzy image made from too great a distance … this one was razor sharp, and for the first time revealed Pluto’s amazing geological beauty. With that image, Pluto became a place, just like Mars or Titan or even Earth, and it revealed itself to be a place beyond my wildest imagination. You could see mountain ranges, craters, canyons, giant ice fields, and more! Pluto was gorgeous … I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
High fives, cheers, shivers, and tears make the rounds, and I confess I choked up myself at a few points (yes, I’m that guy). Pause and think for a moment of the achievement. Twenty-six years in the planning and building, almost three thousand people involved, culminating (for the moment) in pictures of a place three billion miles from Earth. Adding even more poignancy is that New Horizons carried with it some of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes.
Post-contact the book reveals some of the science already pulled from the data, which has really overturned a lot of what had been the “common wisdom” with regard to Pluto. The pictures and data provided surprise after surprise, and scientists will be poring over it for decades to come. Meanwhile, New Horizons is not finished. It’s on its way now to a flyby date with Kuiper Object 2014 MU69 (Ultima Thule) in early 2019, and as long as it is funded, it can continue operating and sending data perhaps into the 2030s. Stern and Grinspoon might have another book on tap.
I, for one, would immediately pick it up. Chasing New Horizons is top notch non-fiction. It does what the best popular science should do — impart fascinating information but without leaving out the human passion driving all the numbers and data, teaching as it also inspires. Highly recommended.