Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto
A shrewd observer of our national character, the late Tom Wolfe tapped extravagant stories drawn from real life and refined them in the fires of his imagination. The Right Stuff, his 1979 book on the dawn of our space program, thrillingly evoked our first orbits in capsules that seem like tin cans compared to today’s sleek, gleaming probes. But there’s a through-line from that time to now: NASA has led the way, blending technological advances with visionary science, balancing triumphs with tragedies and buoying our senses aloft.
That American can-do spirit infuses Chasing New Horizons, the definitive account of our first flyby mission of Pluto, the largest object in the distant Kuiper Belt. (Some astronomers still seethe over Pluto’s 2006 demotion to “dwarf planet.”) The head of the mission, Alan Stern, and his accomplished co-writer, David Grinspoon, trace New Horizons from its conception in 1989 right through 2015’s historic event and beyond, as the spacecraft, or “bird” in NASA parlance, will visit another far-flung Kuiper body on New Year’s Day, 2019.
Stern and Grinspoon recreate the mission’s highs and lows in a compulsively readable tale. In the hands of less gifted storytellers, much of the early years— the internal competition for funds, a feud with Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA’s alternating red and green lights—would have been tedious. But Stern and Grinspoon skillfully tease out the drama, with vivid portraits of the young scientists and engineers who were willing to stake their careers on challenges straight out of a Star Wars film:
“For these ambitious space nerds in their twenties and thirties, who had grown up on Apollo, Mariner, Viking, and Voyager, the thought of upending the established order with an insurgent Pluto mission was more than a little crazy . . . a subversive and unlikely idea, cooked up by a rebel alliance that seemed ill-equipped to take on an empire.”
The build-up to New Horizon’s launch is rich with delicious tension. Stern’s team tested and re-tested New Horizon’s design and efficacy, circling back to the drawing board, seeking the ideal bird within a tight budget. At one point the liftoff date was projected to fall on Friday the 13th; it’s a wonderfully humanizing moment as the scientists almost surrender to the tug of superstition. Choppy weather delayed the launch twice, but it’s exhilarating when Stern and Grinspoon finally watch the rocket blaze away from Florida.
They also do right by the nine-year voyage to Pluto, a three-billion-mile hibernation, with the spacecraft waking up occasionally, studying Jupiter, flexing its software. New Horizons carries a trove of memorabilia, including ashes from Clyde Tombaugh, the American astronomer who’d discovered Pluto in 1930.
Stern and Grinspoon detect a poetry in the arc that led to New Horizons: “Think about that for a minute: seventy years earlier, photos of light from the Sun had reflected off Pluto, traveled for four hours and over all those billions of miles to Earth, and passed through a telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona. . . . Now some atoms that had been part of Clyde were going to make the journey to that faraway world and then continue on, outward, to leave our solar system for interstellar space and the galaxy beyond . . . this was surely a unique and wondrous memorial, unlike any other in history.”
During New Horizon’s lengthy slumber Stern kept a skeleton crew, with other members farmed out to various projects; but in 2015 they came together again in a spirit of anxiety and jubilation as the bird, fully awake and functional, approached Pluto and its largest moon, Charon.
The team found two additional moons (plus two already uncovered by the Hubble Telescope)—a complex six-body cluster unlike anything else in the observed solar system. Despite a last-minute, white-knuckled computer glitch, New Horizons soared closer. The bird beamed back jaw-dropping images and data, such as the famous thousand-kilometer wide “heart,” a bubbled plain of nitrogen rimmed with ice mountains the height of the Rockies, and Cthulhu, a dark terrain across the dwarf planet’s equator. Pluto has an unexpectedly varied geology and a blue haze that looks like a sheet-thin version of Earth’s atmosphere.
The spacecraft’s revelations—and the excitement and publicity they generated—proved a coup for NASA, echoing the space program’s achievements from the 1960s and ’70s. The contrast between then and now is subtle but clear: Can we dream big again? Stern and Grinspoon not only entertain us with a rousing adventure story, they also push us to think long and hard about future horizons we scarcely dare to chase.