BOOK REVIEW: Everything You Wanted To Know About Pluto, But Were Afraid To Ask

"Chasing New Horizons"

Alan Stern got interested in space exploration as a boy. He followed his dream to be an astronaut and went and got a Ph. D. in Planetary Science. He’s been way up in the atmosphere, and led the first mission to Pluto, working with NASA for years and finally hitting paydirt on July 14th, 2015 with a treasure trove of Plutonian gold, well, nitrogen and methane ice….

Although President George W. Bush in August of 2002 said to me in Portland, Oregon that, “I’m gonna send YOU to Pluto!” the first, and hopefully not the last, mission to Pluto was unmanned. Bush never even sent me a spacesuit, let alone a fortnight at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. But Alan sent me a cool New Horizons mission pin that I proudly wear on my lapel, and a just-as-cool bumper sticker that reads, “My other vehicle explored Pluto.”

In 1989, Alan and a young cadre of Plutophiles, perhaps frustrated that Voyager 1 was the last chance on the books to go to Pluto, and had been diverted to Saturn’s larger-than-Mercury moon Titan, decided to take the bull by the horns and see to it themselves that the 9th planet be explored. (Apologies to Ceres.)

In Chasing New Horizons – Inside the Epic Tale of the First Mission to Pluto, Alan explains that exploring Titan was a logical diversion; but it must’ve been an emotional letdown for such an avid Pluto Hugger, nonetheless.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the greatest 20th Century philosophers once (maybe thrice) said (probably in German), “Genius is completion.”

America’s genius for the reconnaissance of the solar system was exponentially augmented when the baby grand piano-sized New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto at close range, beaming back stunning photos of its five moons, one of which also being a brother binary dwarf planet dubbed Charon – some in b + w, some in awe-inspiring colors.

When I first learned about Pluto in kindergarten back in 1966 or 1967, I started daydreaming I was its King. I even had a pop factory and a castle, and could even freeze people. I remember wanting to see what it looked like. So Alan is my hero. He even got it on a stamp!

Alan and fellow planetary scientist David Grinspoon wrote a book telling the tale of how an idea in 1989 became a reality in 2015. It took a lot of work from a devoted team, led by Alan as the Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission, to pull it off. Many ancillary figures figured in the equation, as well. Maybe even me when I told Bush, “You’ll get a lot of Trekkie votes [in his 2004 re-election bid]!” Heck, past missions had ended up on the cutting room floor of the Oval Office – even once or twice to New Horizons itself!

Clyde Tombaugh’s tale of the discovery of Pluto in 1930 is also included in Chasing New Horizons – Inside the Epic Tale of the First Mission to Pluto.

Walt Disney’s Pluto was invented later that year, by the way, not the other way around, doggone it!

The July 4th Debacle that nearly doomed the mission ten days out from sweet success is also written about. Mr. Grinspoon captures the emotion and anxiety brilliantly as his grasp of the nuances of a uniquely 21st Century crisis is unfurled. Luckily, Alan’s astute leadership, galvanized by his undying love for Pluto at every step of the way from 1989 on, saved New Horizons from a dataless disaster.

The result is a riveting ride at over 30,000 mph to the greatest, largest, most-loved planet past Neptune. And, yes, New Horizons determined that Pluto is larger than Eris beyond a shadow of a doubt!

Pluto has captured the heart of the world. Even before its large heart of nitrogen ice and other compounds was imaged by the amazing cameras onboard New Horizons, it was beloved by a plethora of Earthlings. Even before the irascible International Astronomical Union (henceforth IAU) stripped the icy orb of its planetary status seven months and five days after the awe-inspiring launch of New Horizons – on the 434th anniversary of the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France no less, it was beloved by billions. And the IAU is headquartered in France! Geez-o-Pete’s!

Pluto is a planet, damn it! And it will be replanetized officially one, bright, shiny day – hopefully in an upcoming triennial IAU General Assembly. Maybe in Vienna this August, maybe in Busan, South Korea in August 2021; but until that delightful day of redemption, the IAU’s name is mud in my book. I actually know of one man who was paid to fly to Prague in 2006 to vote to demote Pluto! And I saw a man (the General Assembly session was taped) cut off in mid-sentence speaking in favor of keeping Pluto a planet! The fix was in! Some call it Science! Ha! It was a charade!

Alan makes a sage case for replanetization. He once challenged Neil deGrasse Tyson to debate Pluto’s planetary status. Neil declined, opting instead to debate a random guy in a Pluto suit on Late Night with Seth Meyers, and had his facts wrong even then! Ha!

Did you know Pluto is 2/3rds the size of the Moon? Did you know there are two solar system moons larger than Mercury? Ganymede of Jupiter and Titan. No one is saying Mercury isn’t a planet! Well, maybe Venus when Mercury is being a brat!

Read the book. It will inspire you to never give up. Follow your dreams! With hard work and teamwork – and maybe a little luck, they will come true, too!

POSTSCRIPT

Full disclosure. I met Dr. Stern at a pre-launch party in Cocoa Beach, Florida in January of 2006, and we, along with a scientist in polymers named Mr. Raj Pillai, administer a Facebook group called Society of Unapologetic Pluto Huggers that has over 1,250 members. It’s a great support group for Pluto Huggers; but we allow anyone interested in dwarf planets to join as long as they are sincere. I met him by emailing him about my encounter with President Bush in Puddletown, wanting to share my story of contribution to the cause. I met him again on May 10th, 2018 at the Ann Arbor District Library, along with David Grinspoon, whilst on their book tour for Chasing New Horizons.

 

“PlutoXXX, Frame 3” an artwork by Mike Wrathell using a photo of Pluto taken by New Horizons on July 14, 2015.

 

Saturn’s largest moon is Titan. (Photo by The Washington Post)

 

“Chasing New Horizons” Authors Alan Stern and David Grinspoon. (Courtesy of Henry Throop)

 

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