Chasing New Horizons

Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

Authors: Alan Stern and David Grinspoon (Wiki link).
Originally published: May 2018.

On July 14 2015, the spacecraft New Horizons flew above Pluto after a 10 year journey. This was the furthest dwarf planet to be explored up to this point. The book is a detailed chronicle of that event.


The story begins with the discovery of Pluto, in the beginning of 1900. The author gives us a few historical details. Next, we move to the situation around 1960, at the peak of NASA’s exploration successes. A series or events were turning up to make Pluto the perfect next target for their missions.

Firstly, Pluto was the furthest planet in the solar system. It was unexplored. No previous spacecraft was able to get close enough to make detailed pictures or observation.

Picture of Pluto: red shades and black background.
Pluto was very interesting scientifically.

Secondly, from the little data available, it was clear Pluto was very interesting scientifically. It had an atmosphere which was evaporating rapidly. Furthermore, it had a very big moon. Finally, its size and geology seemed puzzling.

The third reason this was the moment to visit Pluto had to do with the perfect alignment of the planets in the solar system. This arrangement would allow the spacecraft to pass by Jupiter and use its gravity to accelerate, making the trip much shorter.

New Horizons

Alan Stern writes the book like a chronicle. He details every aspect of the mission. Events, persons involved, dates and places. The movement for Pluto’s exploration was building up for over a decade. There were few times when it seemed they almost got the approval for the mission. But in the end the mission was canceled. For many years it seemed like a hopeless battle.

However, interest in a mission to Pluto kept building up gradually, over many years. 

Stern describes how a special movement was made in support of Pluto. He calls them the Plutophiles. He also tells us a funny story about a boy who single-handed got into NASA to lobby for Pluto exploration.

In the end, against all odds, the dream becomes a reality. 

Satelite getting ready for launch, in a laboratory.
 Getting the project to this point took over 14 years.

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) is selected to build the spacecraft. The team name their explorer: New Horizons. Getting the project to this point took over 14 years. Even though this was just the first phase of planning, designing, finding funds, organizing conferences and constructing the craft:

“After all these years, from 1989 to 2005 we really, finally had a Pluto spacecraft at its launch site.”

Next they would have to send it on its way to Pluto.

The Passion

Alan Stern’s passion is obvious both in his writing style, and in the events he writes about. He was relentless in his conviction to make Pluto’s mission a reality. On top of that, he is a specialist in the field and provides us with detailed descriptions of the science involved. Furthermore, he explains in detail how NASA is planning their missions. He gives us an insider’s view of politics and the people involved.

His exasperation is almost palpable when the mission is canceled again and again. He’s disbelief is tangible to the reader. When they finally win the contest to build the spacecraft he is ecstatic:

“Now it was Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark’s iconic, futuristic year of 2001, and he had won the chance to explore the furthest worlds humans had ever attempted.”

Artificial satellite above Earth.
 “he had won the chance to explore the furthest worlds humans had ever attempted.”

Global Event

Because of our current global media, the flyby receives more attention than anybody has anticipated:

“The world had changed since Voyager, with so many new forms of communication and participation. Thanks to that, the New Horizons mission felt in many ways like the first truly twenty-first-century planetary encounter.”

The publicity around the event is unexpected:

“With New Horizons, humankind was able to directly share the flyby and the very human events around it, just as it all happened, transforming it into a communal, world wide experience.”

Alan Stern gives us a very engaging story brightened up with incredible amounts of details. Technical specifics of the spacecraft, inner workings of the project and people involved. All this tightly wrapped in his own passions and emotions that become contagious for the reader.

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