Swept Off My Feet

When I was a little boy, I was just swept off my feet by seeing the first robotic missions to the nearby planets and the first expeditions of humans to the Moon. All I wanted to do was to grow up and be a part of all that, humankind’s emergence from our cradle on Earth into the vast ocean of space beyond this world.

Little did I know then that I’d go to college not one but five times, earning two undergrad degrees (in physics and astronomy), two masters degrees (in aero engineering and planetary atmospheres), and a PhD (in astrophysics), and eventually be on the science teams of 29 separate space missions, running experiment investigations or whole missions on about half of those teams.

Of all the missions I’ve been involved in though, from upper atmospheric suborbital space flights to Space Shuttle missions to robotic interplanetary journeys, my favorite is New Horizons, which I have had the pleasure and honor of leading since its inception in late 2000.

New Horizons is a nearly $1B NASA mission that made the first exploration of Pluto—3+ billion miles away. The 2,500 men and women who designed, built, and flew New Horizons achieved the farthest exploration of places in the history of humankind. Talk about seeing new horizons!

Let that sink in for a minute, because it sounds like science fiction—but it’s not. We actually did that, and we did more.

We also inspired the public in ways NASA hadn’t seen since Apollo, and we showed that truly deep space planetary exploration could be done on faster schedules and at five times less cost than in the past. Let that sink in too, because that represents some new horizons in itself in terms of how space missions can be made more responsive and efficient in the future.

But New Horizons didn’t just happen. It began as just an idea—to explore far away Pluto, over a decade before the name New Horizons was even coined. It took 12 years to go from a wish to a proposal competition, with many setbacks but also successes along the way. The end result was a nationwide competition NASA sponsored among teams who wanted to design, build, and fly this legendary mission of exploration. Our team, which I dubbed New Horizons, won that competition against much larger and more experienced rivals in a David vs. Goliath struggle worthy of a movie! And when we won it, our most powerful rival was so threatened by their loss that they tried to scuttle the entire effort to explore Pluto. But we beat them at that too.

With that threat settled, we took on a four year horserace to design, build, and test our breakthrough spacecraft and its payload of advanced cameras and spectrometers. Then we launched it on a customized Atlas V rocket that accelerated New Horizons to become the fastest spacecraft ever launched.

That launch, back in 2006, sent us on a 9.5 yearlong journey across the entirety of our home solar system to reach far away Pluto in the summer of 2015.

The launch of New Horizons on January 19th, 2006.

The spacecraft ultimately succeeded beyond our wildest expectations, revealing the ninth planet and all five of its moons in spectacular detail.  The data New Horizons returned showed that Pluto, a small planet only about the size of the continental United States, is surprisingly complex and surprisingly active. In fact, it taught us for the first time that small planets can be as complex and geologically active as large ones, something that had not been expected, by anyone.

But more importantly, the exploration of Pluto also captured the imagination of literally hundreds of millions of people, both young and old, showing that we humans are capable of amazing things when we explore.

This entire, 26-year saga—the good, the bad, the inspiring, and the sometimes ugly and even downright harrowing—is the subject of a just published book by myself and my coauthor David Grinspoon, another planetary scientist and an award-winning writer. That book is called Chasing New Horizons. You can learn more about it, and even link to where you can purchase it at: http://read.macmillan.com/lp/chasing-new-horizons-by-alan-stern-and-david-grinspoon/

The cover of Chasing New Horizons.

The exploration of space is the largest stage that humans have ever played on. New Horizons, which taught us so much about both distant worlds and ourselves, completed the first era of reconnaissance of our solar system by exploring Pluto—the last of the planets known at the dawn of the space age, and in doing so became a part of the history of space exploration that will someday make us an interplanetary species and perhaps even explorers of far away star systems.

We who carried the project out, working largely in anonymity for so long, look back now, proud but sometimes hardly believing that we actually carried out something larger than life, something that will live long beyond our selves, and something that we think inspired a new generation of explorers to even greater accomplishments in the era that is giving birth to the era of Star Trek.

Alan Stern is a planetary scientist, aerospace engineer, speaker, author, and Space for Humanity Technical Advisor. Formerly, he headed NASA’s program of all Earth and space science missions and research. Follow him on Twitter @AlanStern; his web site is at AlanStern.space.