Pluto-cracy: Dr. Alan Stern & Dr. David Grinspoon's "Chasing New Horizons"


Dr. Alan Stern and Dr. David Grinspoon

They chased new horizons with New Horizons: Dr. Alan Stern and Dr. David Grinspoon. Photo by Henry Throop.

When the NASA spacecraft New Horizons did a Pluto driveby at 32,000 MPH on July 14, 2015, it was the first close-up view we had of our solar system’s most distant planet.

And yes, it's a full-blown planet, despite what you may have heard on Aug. 24, 2006, when Pluto was reclassified by astronomers as a “dwarf planet.”

Please do not try to tell planetary scientist Dr. Alan Stern otherwise.

“What the astronomers did was really a travesty; planetary scientists don’t buy that b.s.,” said Stern, whose new book, Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto, recounts the spacecraft mission he led, which provided unprecedented photos and information about the Milky Way's tiny trouper. (He will be at AADL’s downtown branch on Thursday, May 10, at 7 pm.)

“We know what planets are, and if you go to planetary science meetings, Pluto is called a planet every single day,” Stern said. “Don’t follow what the astronomers do any more than if I tried to classify black holes as a non-expert. But the journalists who lapped it up in 2006, if that would have happened in the ‘90s, there would have never been a mission.”

New Horizons didn’t need any additional headwinds from undereducated government officials suddenly wondering why NASA was spending so much time and money trying to explore a “mere” dwarf planet. The project had enough problems during its 13-year run-up to launch, including six failed mission concepts before New Horizon received funding. 

“If the mission to Pluto had been a cat, it would have been dead long ago,” Stern said. “Cats only get nine lives and we were at a dozen near-death experiences. There were a lot of cancellations, some really scary experiences during development, etc., and when you flip the coin that many times, it’s amazing we got it all done. It’s really a testament to our team.”

That team included astrobiologist and writer Dr. David Grinspoon, Stern’s coauthor of Chasing New Horizons. (He'll also be at AADL.)

“I was involved in helping the team to communicate about the mission,” Grinspoon said, “get the word out about this cool mission and make sure the public knew what was going on.”

Grinspoon is continuing in that role with Chasing New Horizons since Stern told publishers he was too busy to write a book by himself.

“I said I would do it if I had a co-author,” Stern said. “That would help because I’m still flying space missions."

The two have been friends for 20 years, so it was a natural fit. Plus, Grinspoon is the author of many popular books about science and space, including 1997’s Venus Revealed: A New Look Below the Clouds of Our Mysterious Twin Planet, 2003’s Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life, and 2016’s Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet's Future.

“We agreed to work on this book together a couple years ago,” Grinspoon said, “and [Stern had] a lot of stories to tell about the mission, many of which I didn't know. So, we put it on our calendar to have regular Saturday phone calls as the first step to generate the raw material that turned into this book. The storytelling material that became the core of the book came out of the conversations.”

The book reads like a drama-thriller, with close calls and heroes, surprise failures and monumental accomplishments, culminating with this generation’s most important space mission.

“There's no topping an expedition like that,” Stern said, "even in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s when there were first missions to every planet from Mercury to Neptune. It was such a prized thing for scientists to be able to be on the first up-close expedition of Mars or Venus or Jupiter. In our generation, those have been done -- Pluto was the last train to Clarksville. So to be able to get that mission funded and then compete and win in a David and Goliath struggle, to be able to select a team and then pull it off, it's just a dream come true. It's like storybook stories.”

Even though the Pluto mission was the final “first” in terms of exploring our solar system’s planets, there are plenty of immensely important NASA projects happening now, even with the current federal government’s harsh budget-cutting stance.

“Space exploration is one of the small areas that really does enjoy bipartisan support,” Grinspoon said, “which actually makes it pretty unusual because we live in such divisive times. ... NASA's doing fine right now and there are a lot of great plans going forward.”

“NASA's doing lots of big things right now,” Stern said, “building three different human spaceflight vehicles, from Boeing, SpaceX, and Lockheed Martin. Building a Saturn V class rocket to take astronauts back to the Moon, exploration of ocean worlds like Europa, Jupiter's satellite, which may harbor life. Rover’s on Mars. New Horizons' going further out for its next driveby. Hubble space telescope, cranking away every day, making discoveries. ... I think there are over 90 space-science missions, plus the human spaceflight program, and they're all firing on all cylinders. It's a very active program.”

There are more discoveries to come from New Horizons, too, whose mission has been extended through 2021 to explore the Kuiper belt and more. But with the spacecraft's main focus in the rearview, you might assume Stern has had his fill of Pluto.

“Do you think Columbus got tired of North America?” Stern laughed. “I’m not relating myself to the guy, but you know what I'm saying. For all of us on the project, it’s just incredible how spectacular that planet turned out.”

Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.

Dr. Alan Stern and Dr. David Grinspoon present "Chasing New Horizons" at the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library, 345 S. Fifth Ave., on Thursday, May 10 at 7 pm. Read an excerpt from the book here. Visit the book's Facebook page for more info.