Why I care about the New Horizons mission to Pluto


The heart of Pluto got even more interesting in the recent flyby of New Horizons.

About 15 years ago, NASA chose the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University to build & manage a multifunction machine, using state of the art technology (in 2006), that they could shoot at icy Pluto (formerly known as a planet) about 3 billion miles away. That small spacecraft, against massive odds—the cold of space, solar radiation, impossible-to-know tiny particles that could have ripped it apart, unknown moons recently discovered orbiting Pluto, and the down-grading of Pluto to an “ice dwarf” (wah wah)—prevailed.  But why is that important?

The cumulative New Horizons mission cost of only about $700 million, over a decade, is itself remarkable—the U.S. government spends about $700 BILLION a year on each of the following: defense, medical coverage, and social security. (Also for comparison, annual sales at Walmart are about $400 million.)

The 1-month worldwide box office take for Jurassic World is twice the cost of this 10-year mission to reach Pluto and continue to explore the outer reaches of the solar system in which we live. To be clear, people around the world paid $1.4 billion ($600 million in the U.S.) to see a (fun) pretend 2-hour story about a fake, cloned, genetically modified (GMO) dinosaur.

I’m not anti-movie, I’m just pro spending of (relatively) modest sums for pure science.

The craft, about the size of a grand piano, was shot from earth and (more or less) left to barrel through space at 30,000 mph, so fast that a collision with a particle as small as a grain of rice could have debilitated it. After traversing 3 billion miles of the “final frontier” in 9 years, it made contact with the outer reaches of our solar system Tuesday, flying within about 7,000 miles of Pluto. (To be, um, clear, Star Trek’s “Warp 1” is the speed of light, 186,240 mps or 670,464,000 mph.)  The mission was a resounding success.

During that time, and especially yesterday, it has collected so much data that it will take nearly 16 months to transmit it all back to earth. Even just that effort is astounding, taking 4.5 hours for data to make the one-way trip. [NASA VIDEO: New Horizons phone home!]

Why? Why does it matter?

To quote President John F. Kennedy’s address at Rice University, Houston, Texas, concerning the nation’s efforts in space exploration (btw, I was 1 month when he gave this speech, to be clear):

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

When even a cursory scan of the news can make one feel that humanity is perhaps caught in a perpetual contortion of confounding, inexplicable, & bewildering behaviors, values, and outcomes—malleable or at least shifting moral & ethics—our astounding achievements of the magnitude of visiting a far-away piece of the beginning of the universe demand a respite and repose.

We are not the sum of the reactive, primitive brain happenings that dominate social media trends.

We are the species that build machines to know more. To understand how we fit into this complex question of creation and existence.

I appreciate that many people who will point to poignant achievements in the arts and humanities to make a similar point—some of whom I adore. It is fantastic to embrace these, as all, authentic achievements that move people.

For me, it’s pure science.


More about the New Horizons Mission Team.  It’s the first first with a female MOM, and women make up 25% of the team.

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