Alan Stern takes us behind the scenes of the science, politics, egos, and expectations that has fueled the greatest space mission of our time: New Horizons' mission to Pluto. And of course, by the time I finish this book, the mission is way beyond its objective - crossed Pluto and would go on to take snapshots of Ultima Thule (~4 billion miles from the Sun) on the 1st of January, 2019. What an eve to celebrate.
Launched in Jan, 2006, the Spacecraft crossed Pluto In July 2015 at a speed of more than 52,000 Kilometer per hour and crossing more than 4.8 billion km from Earth. Focusing its instruments on the long mysterious icy worlds of the Pluto system, continued on its journey out into and beyond. Having completed its flyby of Pluto, New Horizons has maneuvered for a flyby of Kuiper belt object (486958) 2014 MU, nick named Ultima Thule.
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. Stern with a 'can-do' spirit infuses Chasing New Horizons, the definitive account of first flyby mission of Pluto and narrates the ordeal he went through the mission towards reaching out to Pluto, a planet when launched and now a largest object in the distant Kuiper Belt.
The authors recount every step of the mission including its highs and lows in a lucidly readable manner. The internal competition for funds and the restrictions imposed on Alan Stern when he was not allowed to seek outside help, a feud with Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA’s alternating red and green lights (based on the lobby that was against the mission) do make a 'breaking' read. That the support from the team with vivid portraits of the young scientists and engineers who were willing to stake their careers on challenges is a bolt from the blue.
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, verifying the bird's credibility. It was unassuming to note that at one point when the lift-off date was projected to fall on Friday the 13th some scientists, weighed down under the ever-famous superstition, almost surrendered to the tug of superstition and aborted the launch. Inclement weather delayed the launch twice, and it was thrilling to read 'no-go' at the last moment when the power failed on the day of launch and Stern decided not to rely on local power generator.
They also mention this nerve-cracking test done often on the 9-year voyage to Pluto - a 3-billion-mile hibernation, with the spacecraft waking up occasionally, studying Jupiter, flexing its software and exhaling the project directors. New Horizons also carries a trove of memorabilia, including ashes from Clyde Tombaugh, the American astronomer who had discovered Pluto in 1930. (And also my name with message 'Go New Horizons' to be beamed on UT).
During New Horizon’s lengthy sojourn Alan Stern kept a thin crew, with other members spread out to various projects only to be merged again in 2015, 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.
There is this mention about the computer glitch when the New Horizons soared closer to Pluto and when it refused to communicate. It was re-booted successfully and the bird beamed back jaw-dropping images and data, such as the famous thousand-kilometer wide “heart,” - now adorning many mobile phone screens, 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.
What attracted me in the entire writing was the nerve Alan Stern possessed to leave America for Moscow in search of a solution to the plan he had proposed to the mission that was put to hang by some people lobbying against him. (Includes anti-Nuclear group that showed 'radioactivity' concern when Plutonium was to be considered for fueling the bird)
The book presents, to some extent, a sluice of politics that could derail or demoralize a person connected with science, technology and Philosophy. Nevertheless, it could install a kind of courage on any mission in pursuit of excellence.