There have been times in the last couple of decades that the most distant planet in our solar system, Pluto, seemed just over the horizon. And then somebody pulled the plug, and a space mission that scores of scientists have longed for went down the tubes.
"It's been up and down like a roller coaster," says planetary scientist Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute. "Sometimes we were heros, sometimes we were villains."
The lusting after Pluto has been a huge chunk of Stern's life the last 14 years, but right now he looks more like a hero than a villain. He will be the chief scientist on a robotic mission to Pluto that was quietly approved by NASA earlier this month.
The announcement was so understated that even Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, which has pushed for the mission for years, was caught off guard. With the Columbia disaster still uppermost in the minds of NASA executives, and a public preoccupied with war in Iraq, this long-awaited mission almost went unnoticed.
And this time, it looks like a winner. It turns out that both the scientific community and the public at large simply would not be denied. We're going to Pluto because the people demanded it.
Arrival Years Away
It will take awhile to get there. The New Horizons spacecraft is scheduled to be launched in 2006 and swing past Jupiter about a year later. The Jupiter flyby will slingshot the craft on out toward Pluto, and it should get there sometime between 2015 and 2017, depending on which unmanned rocket is used for the launch from Earth.
But first, someone has to build it. That will be the principal responsibility of Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, which has already begun "cutting metal," as project manager Thomas Coughlin says. Key scientists from a host of organizations will be "aboard" the spacecraft, roboticly speaking, as it heads for a historic rendezvous with the only planet in the solar system that has not been visited by a spacecraft.
The mission will take so long that it will undoubtedly evolve somewhat along the way, and of course it may even fail due to technological glitches that inevitably occur during these high-risk operations. Some of those who have worked so hard to see it happen may not be alive to see the conclusion. That's not uncommon in these long, sometimes tortured expeditions to distant worlds.
Some were beginning to wonder if the project would ever get off the ground. Many of the delays were financial, and many were political. And for people like Stern, it has been a long, long fight.
"It will take us fewer years to cross the solar system than it did to cross the Washington beltway," Stern says of the long struggle.
How we got to this point speaks volumes about the world of grass-roots politics, and scientific lobbying.
The push for Pluto came to a head in 2000 when NASA canceled a planned mission to the distant planet because of escalating costs. That decision riled up lots of folks, including members of the Pasadena, Calif.-based Planetary Society. Within a couple of weeks, 10,000 letters arrived on the desk of the NASA administrator.
"In NASA-land and space politics-land, it's very rare to get 10,000 letters about anything," says Stern.