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The drama of Pluto's discovery drives the new book Chasing New Horizons



The story of Pluto's first exploration is told between two stamps.

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991, the United States Postal Service created a series of stamps featuring photographs of the planets with a notable omission. Pluto was called "not yet explored" and represented by a painting. In May 2016, the USPS issued a new stamp set – Pluto Explored! – With a photo of the remote planet and the New Horizons, the interplanetary spacecraft that crashed past Pluto at 32,000 mph.


Between these two stamps hides a story involving years of research and thousands of people in coordinated work and billions of miles, along with rejection, false starts, a strained communication failure, interplanetary research grudge and all sorts of drama. Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons Mission, with astrobiologist and author David Grinspoon, told this story in "Hunting for New Horizons: In the Epic First Mission to Pluto." Her is a space and science book that reads more a thriller

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Thoughts Series with Alan Stern and David Grinspoon

When: 7 pm Saturday [19659009] Where: Houston Space Center, 1601 NASA Parkway

Details: free but limited seats; tickets at spacecenter.org

"It's a space science book, but we want it to be a space exploration book," says Stern. "It's a thriller and an adventure story because it tells what really happened."

Add Grinspoon, "We certainly missed out on a lot because we wanted an accessible book, and somebody else can write the 700-page scientific footnotes book that we wanted to tell as the adventure story it is." [19659009] Fitting with a mission that took years to get to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral and then years after New Horizons made its way over more than 3 billion miles. "Chasing New Horizons" has a few different starting points.

One starting point is the story of Clyde Tombaugh, described as "a Kansas farm boy with no formal technical education," who looked at the night sky through a Sears Roebuck telescope. He would go on to pick up the work of the famous astronomer Percival Lowell and look for an elusive Planet X that Tombaugh found in 1930.

"Tombaugh was a giant," says Stern. "He worked in the '30s, who did not catch up on the technology until the' 90s, he had legendary skills and he did something amazing, he's a great American."

Stern came nearly 20 years later, born in 1957 in New Orleans, to the world. The story of "Chasing New Horizons" could also begin with his time at the University of Texas, where he began his career in 1980. He asked a planetary research professor for guidance on a worthwhile research problem.


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"Why not you? Work on Pluto?" Was the answer.

Stern was involved in 29 space missions in his career. Pluto could have been his white whale, only Stern was not drowned by his quarry. Instead, it became a legacy project.

In conversation, Stern repeatedly draws attention to the team of about 2,500 people whose work on New Horizons spanned over a decade, from conception through planning to execution.

a grueling process, "he says." But the whole project team has weighed its tails against huge odds to make it possible. Some things came out of the blue and some fell in our favor. Some not. But the hard work of a talented team has paid off. People say you make your own luck. To tell too much about the logistical network involved in the New Horizons project would deprive the reader of the story Stern and Grinspoon are telling, but the tempo of their story is curious, given the idea of ​​a Pluto mission Skepticism and setbacks were faced, one after another, including a statement that the mission was "dead, dead, dead."

That is very dead.

"That's a precise quote," says Grinspoon. One or two deads could have been ambiguous, I think. "

But New Horizons was not dead.

The authors have achieved a certain narrative sleight of hand with the book: learning more about the solar system inevitably shrinks In a sense, when strangers become known, but for a layman who only viewed Pluto's photographs on paper and websites in 2015, the story in "Hunting New Horizons" is an unimaginable area in which the Launchpad moment almost a decade before the success or failure of the mission is known. The transmissions between the Earth and the ship, which moved at the speed of light, could take another 10 hours. The mission could not have been started at any given time. A cliché on Earth, the planets literally had to reorient themselves for New Horizons to succeed. A nine-year journey finally went through a nine-minute window.

"Part of the story is about delayed gratification," says Grinspoon. "This whole decade in the wilderness, and part of the story was slow for the participants, but we did not want it to be boring for the reader, so we tried to convey what the experience was for the team, as a proposal canceled became, with emotional reactions. "

The project itself provided some drama. After initial rejection, the green light of the project came in a way that required a red-eyed flash of planning. And days before the spaceship passed Pluto, a communications blackout created a white knuckle tension on Earth. The authors also provide a historical context to present the challenges. In 1992, the Mars Observer exploded, showing that these huge financial ventures offer no prospect of rewards.

And in the midst of the mission, a dispute arose over Pluto's name as planet. While this name was won for laughter in Late Night TV and used as a punchline in a Randy Newman song, Stern found it without humor. "Chasing New Horizons" credits a small attempt by a British astronomer to undo Tombaugh's legacy.

"I do not think it's funny at all, frankly," says Stern. "Not only is it tragic to try to erase the heritage of this great man, it also felt historically a borderline criminal to me." As a professional planetary scientist, I found her work to be tragically scientifically flawed Financing and science at stake, and it felt like one profession interfering with another. "

Perhaps readers elsewhere will find small touches of lightness. Perhaps in phrases like: "For the Plutophiles was the end of the 1990s, a low point of morality."

But even this moment shows how "Hunting New Horizons" bridges worlds between plutophiles and those that were once considered plutophiles. neutral.

"True, we're social beings," says Grinspoon. "We tend to find and connect like-minded people, and plutophiles faced some adversity that made them connect strongly, it's more than general interest, but that's why we've been working hard on the storyline of this story. We wanted to make it an adventure story and an interesting science book, and we did not want it to be weighted by equations. "

An early commentary in Stern's book underscores the book's appeal.

"I'm really inspired by exploration itself," he writes, "Independent of Science."

andrew.dansby@chron.com


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