An antidote to the dark, dumb times of our current existence.
From The Right Stuff onward, recounting the history of spaceflight is to tell tales of the improbable. So many variables have to be calculated precisely for a shot at our neighboring moon that exploring anything further epitomizes the possibility of human achievement. We have been at this for decades, launching manned and unmanned spacecraft into the depths of our galaxy, but the process never gets easier. Each mission exists at the edge of cancellation until the rocket has left the Earth and the probe is launched. At that point, any of a thousand variables could bring the mission to a premature and expensive closing, but if the contingencies align, the mission will yield glory. Such a synopsis would work for the Explore program, America’s answer to the Sputnik launch, but in Chasing New Horizons by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon, it describes the surprisingly harrowing story of the New Horizons probe launched in 2006 to explore Pluto, its moon, Charon, and the objects and dwarf planets in the region of space beyond Neptune called the Kuiper belt.
The story of the New Horizons mission cannot exist without Alan Stern as its central figure. Since the late ‘80s, he led the project through its many fits, starts and conjurations. Thousands of scientists, engineers and administrators would contribute to the success of the mission over the ensuing decades, but it was Stern, a planetary scientist, who persevered through the political fights, corporate malfeasance and shifting priorities of varying presidential administrations to finally see the stunning images and surprising data his probe would send home. Co-author David Grinspoon is also a planetary scientist, but had more of a tangential role in seeing New Horizons shepherded from proposal to spacecraft. Together, the two men craft a narrative that makes the hard science accessible to the lay reader and the human motivations all too familiar in both ambition and pettiness.
Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, a Kansas farm boy with his eyes on the stars, making him the perfect American character. Since then, Pluto has been an object of fascination for scientists and engineers looking to unlock the mysteries of the galaxy around them. But space exploration has never been an altruistic pursuit where the players involved answer only to their better angels. For a mission like the one that would become New Horizon, NASA creates competitions between different firms and teams until they find a proposal to their liking. Keeping costs low may help a bid, but many of the proposals that NASA administration consider are filled with theoretical devices that the particular firm promises to deliver on cost. One of the reason missions go over budget is the failure to deliver these theoreticals. By the time Stern made it through the harrowing gauntlet that would lead to final approval for New Horizons, NASA had no budgets for projects that could not deliver on their promises. The days of the Kennedy mandate were distant history and the program never fully recovered from the Challenger explosion in ’86.
For all the wonder that bears its logo, NASA is a vast bureaucracy, and to read an account of its inner workings is fascinating. It defies credulity that the creation of project proposals and the process by which they get accepted and rejected could drive a narrative to the level of page-turner, but that is exactly what Stern and Grinspoon manage to do once the former leads a letter writing campaign to get a mission to Pluto considered a priority at the space agency. By this account, there was no stage of this mission that was free of tension, and the authors milk this stress to surprising effect. Inexplicably, you will be gripped wanting to know who wins the final bid for the mission in a competition between Stern’s APL and the more famous and politically connected Jet Propulsion Laboratory. There is intrigue, political gamesmanship and so many obstacles that you won’t believe that you already know the outcome to this story. If Stern and Grinspoon weren’t both scientists, you might wonder if they were magicians for the level of craft they bring to their writing.
But there is also catharsis. The audience for this book was likely watching the livestream of mission control when the Curiosity rover touched down on the surface of Mars. Tension filled that room while people worked and waited to know whether their years of labor would prove successful, making all the professional and personal sacrifices worthwhile. When Curiosity went live, the room burst out in relief and joy. It was the sort of effort that was inspiring to witness. Stern and Grinspoon manage to evoke similar emotion in Chasing New Horizons. The book is an antidote to the dark, dumb times of our current existence. It is a reminder that someone is working to remind us of all the hope and marvels the human race is capable of. The inspiration they provide is free to us, but what it cost in endurance and obsession for them is incalculable.