What’s It Take to Get to Pluto? A Q&A with David Grinspoon


image of pluto from new horizons

I sat down with Dr. David Grinspoon, author of the new book Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto, to discuss some of the stories that shed light on NASA's epic first mission to Pluto.

Sabrina Stierwalt: You are obviously a science communicator and an author, but you are also an astrobiologist, an advisor on space exploration strategy to NASA, a chair at the Library of Congress, and you’ve written about Venus and about aliens…so what made you decide to write about the New Horizons mission to Pluto?

David Grinspoon: Well, I love stories of exploration and I’ve been in love with space exploration my whole life. In addition to my own involvement in several planetary missions, I try to be as good a storyteller as I can. And I’m attracted to this story because this mission, New Horizons, is an incredible story. It’s a bunch of young dreamers who decided in 1989 that they wanted to send a mission to Pluto and were told that that was not a good idea, that it would never happen, it’s too far away and too expensive, and not important enough. And they didn’t let go of this idea. They were stymied in so many different ways and experienced so many setbacks. Then 26 years later they succeeded in sending this mission to Pluto. And then Pluto, of course, turned out to be extraordinary in terms of its scientific interest and its beauty and complexity and surprised us in so many ways.

So this story I think is emblematic of modern space exploration. It really shows you how it works. There are a lot of books that tell you what we discovered, but this one really tells you how it happens, how a mission goes from just an idea some people have to something that years later is fully realized. There’s a lot of detail in how that happens that people don’t know. This mission had it all—everything that could go wrong did go wrong and yet they persevered.

The other thing was that I had the opportunity to coauthor this book with Alan Stern who is one of these people in 1989—as a kid he was 30 years old just out of grad school—and he said I want to send a mission to Pluto and he was told no. He didn’t take no for an answer and now he’s the leader of that mission. He had all the stories of how this worked, and I worked with him to bring out those stories and construct this into a narrative where people can understand what it really takes to send a mission so far away and have it succeed.

SS: Well, and to give a sense of how far away it really is, New Horizons was launched in 2006, and didn’t make it to fly by until 2015 when it got our most detailed image ever taken of Pluto. So, that adds up to a nine-and-a-half year wait from spacecraft launch to fly by. That’s like preparing a pie—one with ingredients that cost you several hundred million dollars—and carefully placing it in the oven, only to know that you can’t enjoy your result for another nine and a half years.

That seems like such an incredibly long time to wait, but it’s really just the top tier of this cake. You alluded to the decades even before launch—I know you were involved in some parts of that process but what was your favorite part of that time to write about or to talk to Alan Stern about?

DG: I’m glad you mention that because people think, wow nine years, that’s a long project but actually there were decades before launch. It’s a really long project. And it’s not just a matter of waiting for the cake to come out of the oven during all that time. The team was busy during those nine years. There was so much planning and working with the spacecraft and ironing out problems with the spacecraft and detailed planning of the Pluto encounter. There was a Jupiter encounter on the way to Pluto which was both challenging and scientifically exciting. For the people involved in the mission, they weren’t just waiting for the dinger on the oven to go off.

chasing new horizons book

For my favorite part, it’s hard to say. The moment of launch was just so exhilarating. I was there with a bunch of the members of the science team who were my old friends. Seeing Alan and all these people go through that after all these years of planning and then the anticipation that starts at that moment. It’s an anxious moment because rockets do blow up. Things can go horribly wrong. So it’s just this one moment where all these dreams from all these years in the past, all this work in the past, and all these dreams of the future are crystalized in this very powerful machine that is sitting there on the launch pad steaming, counting down, and then the countdown gets aborted because something goes wrong. You have to wait til the next day. So there’s all this built up anticipation and anxiety. And then there’s this very cathartic moment when it lights up and rumbles and streaks into the sky. It’s very emotional.

So that’s one of my favorite moments, the launch itself but then of course you can’t beat the actual arrival at Pluto, the way Pluto looked itself and the look on the faces of the team members and of the gathered public there seeing this wonder world revealed.

SS: I will back you up on the emotions. I just watched the TESS launch the other day with a group of astronomers and there was more than one face that was a little teary.

DG: Oh yeah! You think of maybe the cliché of engineers and scientists as these people who are not the most emotionally in touch people. I don’t think it’s an accurate cliché, but it’s this picture we have. But there are plenty of tears and heartfelt hugs and extreme partying into the night afterward. These people have been so pent up and then it works and it’s on its way…that really is a time to party. That’s another moment—those parties after launch and after approval when they discover they were going to get to do this mission, the parties after the encounter itself with Pluto—just the celebratory aspect after all the incredibly hard work after so many years and all the anxious sleepless part of the mission. Then when you are with these people and they are just enjoying the success, those are great moments as well.