NASA Mission to Pluto Was Hard-Won

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.

Long Push

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.

And meanwhile, a 17-year-old high school student in Etters, Pa., got his dander up and expressed his outrage on a Web site. Thousands of other letters followed and young Ted Nichols was invited to NASA headquarters for a chat.

After determining that Nichols was not motivated by either his or his family's financial interests, NASA officials asked him why he had become so whipped up over the "Pluto thing," Stern says.

Nichols, now a college freshman and on his way to what most likely will be a very promising career as a planetary geologist, responded:

"Because it's the coolest thing going on in NASA and I want to know why you guys canceled it. Everybody loved it."

The Planet That Never Grew Up

So, obviously, did a lot of scientists. Last year the National Research Council — the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences — gave the mission the number one priority for a "new start" mission in planetary science.

All of that helped pave the way toward this month's announcement, but the question remains: Why would anyone want to spend $500 million to go to an icy rock only 1,430 miles in diameter, with a moon half it's size, that some scientists don't think should even be considered a planet? Ever since Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930, some have argued that it's meager size, eccentric orbit and placement in the solar system suggests it's just really an overgrown asteroid, not a planet.

That's just the point, Stern says. Pluto is a planet that "never grew up," he says, and thus offers a unique opportunity to study the evolution of planets, even our own.

The spacecraft will also turn its cameras and instruments on other inhabitants of a strange area called the Kuiper Belt, beyond Pluto, where hundreds of thousands of small objects circle the earth. Stern says that these objects should have formed a huge, gaseous planet, like the four outer planets, but something went very wrong.

"In Pluto," Stern says, "we have a chance to study a half-formed world, a world whose growth was truncated in the second trimester of gestation, so to speak. Everywhere else we have finished products. Here we have a chance to study an embryo of a planet. From the standpoint of studying planetary origins, you're talking the gold standard. It's like an archaeological dig into the history of the solar system."

Stern says whenever he speaks with school children, one of their favorite topics is Pluto.

"I've had children tell me they like Pluto because it's little," he says. "Kids like little things because they are little themselves. They probably like Pluto because they think it's not a full grown planet."

It turns out that they are quite right about that. They will get a chance to see for themselves just a little over a decade from now as we move down the bumpy road to Pluto.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.