An exploration of the fascinating science and complex bureaucracy behind the first journey to Pluto.
Stern, the principal investigator and project leader of NASA’s New Horizons program, and astrobiologist Grinspoon (Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet's Future, 2016, etc.) deliver a meticulously detailed, riveting chronicle of America’s history-making mission to Pluto, escorting readers through the immense hurdles and hard work involved in the landmark mission. The authors first trace the history of solar system explorations like those conducted by Voyager 2 in the 1980s and contrast those ventures to the Pluto project and the myriad challenges scientists faced when embarking on that inaugural mission to enter its atmosphere. Though backed by legions of “Plutophiles” and motivated by the discovery of the Kuiper Belt ring where Pluto is located, the project became shrouded in doubt, pessimism, and red tape, all leading up to the mission’s epic launch. In 2015, despite software timing glitches, the fly-by happened at 31,000 miles per hour. The New Horizons probe approached Pluto and snapped photographs and collected data, breaking new ground in American aerospace ventures while reinvigorating widespread public fascination with interstellar travel. The book is helmed by two dynamic narrators who had compared notes via an extended series of weekly telephone conversations; their expertise and undeniable passion for aeronautics remain contagious throughout all of the episodes of frustration and triumphant exhilaration. The authors skillfully capture the hopes and dreams of a team of enterprising scientists and engineers and incorporate fascinating details from the spacecraft’s construction and its intricate calculations as well as all of the political melodrama of advisory committees and staunch supporters surrounding the journey. Stern and Grinspoon’s record of this epic project is thoroughly captivating; as a bonus for die-hard space buffs, the authors include an appendix that lists the top 10 scientific discoveries from the New Horizons Pluto mission.
Suffused with serpentine theatrics and scientific wonder, this is a consistently compelling, top-notch documentation of intrepid planetary exploration.