Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Chasing New Horizons: Inside the First Epic Mission to Pluto by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon

From drawing board to Kuiper Belt
When I was growing up there were nine planets orbiting our sun, but as of 2006, planet number nine, Pluto, has been demoted to a dwarf planet. Prior to that redesignation, however, Pluto remained the last unexplored planet in our solar system. The Voyager space probes were immensely successful in exploring the rest of the outer planets, but somehow Pluto could not be worked into their flight plans. As early as the 1980s, a number of Plutophile scientists began plotting how to rectify that omission. The result was the New Horizons spacecraft, which launched in 2006 and reached Pluto (or rather, passed within a mere 8,000 miles of it) in 2015. The book Chasing New Horizons: Inside the First Epic Mission to Pluto, published in 2018, charts the trajectory of this spacecraft from conception through development to historic success.

If you are looking for a book that details all the discoveries that New Horizons made on its journey to Pluto, this is not it. For the latest Plutonian research, you would be better off hunting for articles in Science magazine or even National Geographic. Here, most of the mission’s scientific yield is briefly summarized in an appendix. Concrete conclusions will require more time for all of the collected data to be processed and analyzed in a thoroughly scientific manner. What this book does cover, however, is the process by which the New Horizons probe was conceived, designed, built, tested, approved, launched, and operated. The reader really gets an inside look at what it is like to be a scientist working for NASA and the planning and politics that go into a mission.

The book’s authors, Alan Stern and David Grinspoon, are both planetary scientists who worked on New Horizons. The preface explains that Stern was the project leader and primary driving force behind the project. Grinspoon played a smaller role on the New Horizons team, but he has more experience as a professional author, so he did most of the writing of the book based on extensive interviews with Stern and other members of the New Horizons team. Grinspoon is very skilled at explaining complicated scientific concepts in language that a lay person can understand, but his writing does have its annoying quirks. For starters, he is so set on portraying Stern as a herculean hero that anyone who opposes Stern’s grand vision, whether a scientific competitor or just a government bean counter, is unrealistically painted as a villain. Also, at times the book reads almost as if it were written to satisfy a grant proposal, justifying every expense and making sure that each stakeholder is heartily patted on the back.

The narrative is often exciting and fascinating, but the book does drag at times. It doesn’t really seem necessary to catalog every last test and drill the team went through in preparing New Horizons for its final approach. On the other hand, one really does get a great education into the workings of NASA. Executing a mission isn’t just about scientific discovery; there is quite a bit of tedious routine and bureaucratic red tape as well, and this book captures it all, for better or worse. Grinspoon’s erring on the side of verbosity rather than omission will ultimately make this book the authoritative chronicle of this historic event. Fear not, science lovers, there is certainly enough science here to make up for the excess of board meetings, software uploads, and public relations opportunities. Chasing New Horizons is really an enjoyable and enlightening book. Every NASA mission would be lucky to have such a thorough and accessible document of its triumphs.

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