The Odyssey of the Plutophiles: Alan Stern and David Grinspoon on the Voyage of New Horizons

May 17, 2018

In July of 2015, a spacecraft called New Horizons gave humankind its first close-up view of a small, misunderstood world called Pluto. It took almost 10 years for New Horizons to soar across more than 3 billion miles of space and give us our first meeting with Pluto and its family of moons.

But that journey is just a small part of a much bigger and more harrowing story of how New Horizons came to be. It was a mission that was decades in the making, an endeavor that endured several near-death experiences, from its early planning stages all the way to the eve of its encounter with Pluto.

Our guests are now telling this incredible story in the new book Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto, having experienced this adventure first-hand and from two very different perspectives. Alan Stern is the principle investigator of the New Horizons mission, and his co-author, David Grinspoon, is an astrobiologist, author, and advisor to NASA who witnessed the New Horizons saga as it unfolded and helped to bring its story to life.

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This is point of inquiry for Thursday, May 17th, 2018. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, the flagship podcast of the Center for Inquiry, an organization that seeks to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry and humanist values. 

I’m your host, Paul Fidalgo. 

I know it’s been a while. Point of inquiry has been on a kind of lengthy hiatus for a few months due to a confluence of circumstances. But I’m delighted and relieved to tell you that we’re back and getting to work on churning out new episodes at a somewhat regular clip and for our first new episode in quite some time, we have something really special. It was one of those. Do you remember where you were moments? In July of 2015, a spacecraft called New Horizons gave humankind its first close up view of a small, misunderstood world called Pluto. It took almost 10 years traveling at an astounding 36000 miles per hour across more than three billion miles of space for new horizons to reach its far flung destination, giving our species the chance to live out a 21st century odyssey full of astonishing discoveries, including that one famous gorgeous image of Pluto revealing a massive heart shaped glacier. Almost as though it was glad to see us. And here’s the thing that all inspiring and all too brief flyby of Pluto and its moons that united the world and wonder. That’s just a tiny part of a much bigger and more harrowing story of how New Horizons came to be. It was a mission that was decades in the making, an endeavor that endured several near-death experiences from its early planning stages all the way to the eve of its encounter with Pluto. It’s sobering now to think just how many times New Horizons came so close to never happening at all. This incredible story is now being told in the new book Chasing New Horizons Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto. And my guests today are its coauthors who experienced this adventure firsthand and from two very different perspectives. First, we’ll hear from Alan Stern, the planetary scientist who led the New Horizons mission, who nurtured it from controversial concept to startling reality. Then I’ll talk to David Grinspoon and astrobiologist, author and advisor to NASA on planetary exploration who witnessed the New Horizons saga as it unfolded and helped bring its story to life. 

First, I’m honored to present my conversation with the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, Alan Stern. 

Alan Stern, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thank you. Looking forward to being with you. 

I bet we could take up our entire conversation with the question of why Pluto. So I want to come at it from a slightly different angle. If I’m someone who’s totally unfamiliar with the subject, I might just assume that Pluto is this little ball of rock and ice. And, you know, I know that Neil deGrasse Tyson says he’s not a real planet and all that, but you and your coauthor David Grinspoon use words like exotic to describe it. So to your mind, what is exotic about Pluto? 

Well, it’s exotic in every respect. It’s the most distant world that has ever been explored. It was the first discovered of what is now considered to be the third class of planet in our solar system. You know, we have the terrestrial planets like Earth and Mars and Venus. And then we have the big gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. In 1930, when Pluto was discovered, it was kind of an oddball. It didn’t fit their pattern. But by the 90s, the technology got good enough that we started to discover that there are many Pluto’s. Now, it doesn’t or known this new class of planet we call dwarf planets. And by the way, you know, the sun is a dwarf star. This new class planet that Pluto is the archetype for is the most populous class planet in our solar system. And then we swoop down on it with new horizons in 2015. And it was a scientific wonderland. It’s got five satellites. It’s got an atmosphere. It undergoes global change. There look like there are volcanoes on the surface that spew ice. There are glaciers the size of Texas that are moving. There are canyons, liquid water, ocean in the interior. There are old trains and young terrains. There are clear signs of avalanches and seismic activity that take place on the surface. And I’m just giving you a few of the things that we found. 

These are things that were discovered by new horizons. But even before then, though, you’re saying you already had good reason to believe that there was something special about it other than it just being very far away? 

Well, absolutely. In the 80s and 90s, we discovered that Pluto has an atmosphere that is complex surface composition that it has. It’s a double planet with a giant moon half its own size. In the 2000s, we discovered that Pluto has additional satellites, that its surface markings are changing with time, meaning that things are moving around on the surface. We had a pretty good inkling going in that this would be something special. It turned out to be something spectacular. 

So when the Kiper Belt became apparent and I know correct me if I’m wrong, but that was a fairly recent discovery of all the worlds in the Kuiper Belt. Did it make Pluto seem like just one object among a flurry of similar objects? 

No, quite the contrary. Promoted in the eyes, the Planetary Science Committee. And in fact, TYA National Academy of Sciences ranked the exploration of Pluto as the number one priority for funding in planetary exploration for the two thousands. So this isn’t just my opinion. This is the opinion of the National Academy of Science. 

You compared it to the mission to Pluto. You compared its like conquering Mount Everest. So what was it then that called you to Pluto specifically. I mean you personally, because I know from the book that you had been thinking about it for decades before this actually got started. Was there like a single scientific question that you wanted answered or was it something more about the romance of going to this place? 

Well, it was both those things. You know, I’m a I’m an explorer at heart, but I’m also a science scientist by by training and profession. And Pluto was a whole package. You know, it was a seductive scientifically in what it offered us to learn about this new class of planets. And in addition, being the farthest world that had ever been explored, the very frontier of our solar system. It was, as we say, in Chasing New Horizons. It was referred to many times as the Everest of planetary exploration at the time that New Horizons is already on its way. 

You had the what we refer to as the demotion of Pluto from full planetary status. And I know that in the book you guys discuss how that kind of grates, because like you just mentioned, The Sun is a dwarf star, but we still consider it a star. If Pluto is a dwarf planet, we still considered a planet. But there was definitely a discussion in the public about how, oh, now Pluto is being brought down. It’s being lowered in our eyes. New Horizons was already on the way. So how did that affect the work you were doing, if at all? Was there a worry that there would be less interest or enthusiasm about new horizons because of this now new classification for Pluto? 

Well, you know, we don’t really honor that classification in planetary science. You know, that was done by a different group, a group of astronomers that don’t know much about planets. Let me give you a technical term, sure. 

We call it B.S. You know, it B.S. It stands at science. Now, you wouldn’t ask a podiatrist, a foot doctor if to help you if you had a cardiovascular problem with your heart. Maybe the wrong expertize. Even though they’re both doctors, you’d be going for a cardiologist. And it probably if you, let’s say, had a real estate problem, you probably wouldn’t go to a divorce attorney, even though they’re both attorneys in the space field. We have many professions. We have engineering professions, we have different scientific specialties, etc.. Astronomers really don’t know much about planets any more than I’m an expert in black holes and faraway galaxies. They haven’t a little meeting, 2006. They were worried that schoolchildren would have to memorize the names of too many planets. So they wrote a definition that limited the number of planets to eight. Now, right after that, IRA Flatow. Called me up on Science Friday and said, would you debate? Mike Brown is one of the proponents of let’s limit the planets to eight. And I said, sure. And we get on the phone and it’s Science Friday live. And Mike Brown makes his case. And he said, look, we just can’t have 50 planets. It’s too many to remember. Now, I found that anti scientific you know, it seems like it’s sort of engineering the definition versus letting that inform you. 

But but I said, Alan. So what do you think? Can’t have 50 planets. What do you say back to Mike? I said, well, if we can’t have 50 planets, then we’re probably going to have to go back to eight states, I guess. 

Right. And he was speechless. This is just bad science. 

We call it B.S. And it’s interesting that you bring that up because what emerges from the book is this contrast between the idea of science and exploration for their own sake. And then what I would say are these regular office politics. So you’ve got these internal decisions that you would assume are being made in these very academic and cerebral ways. So let’s decide to go to Pluto because of X, Y and Z. But you describe making these big decisions with like coconspirators over dinners and writing petitions and letter writing campaigns. And it sounds a lot like lobbying Congress or grassroots political activism. So I’m assuming that being a lobbyist for a planet wasn’t what you thought your career would entail. 

Yeah. Well, you know, there’s a lot of competition for NASA’s scarce dollars. 

There are many more good ideas for what we could do the NASA can possibly afford. And so through a competitive process, NASA weeds out the weak sisters from the the strongest ideas. And it’s that’s been the case for decades. And so when some of us got the idea that this was a very important thing to go do to explore the Pluto system, we had to compete with other good ideas. 

And as I said earlier, the National Academy of Sciences ultimately chooses what are the best ideas in an impartial way. But you have to make your case and that that requires building a constituency and giving scientific presentations that show the value of it and going to NASA advisory committees. The strongest missions survive and get funded. And the weaker ones as they should fall away. 

And we the top of that, you say that it’s an impartial decision making process, but I will say that, you know, you refer to those who were on your side, who were on your team as the Pluto files, and they’re described as closeted Pluto files. 

And so it sounds like you had this setting where there was a taboo about wanting to explore Pluto and people felt that they had to be closeted about their desire to look at a particular planet. Now, was this something that was particular to Pluto or is this a kind of common situation within these circles? 

Well, I think that there were a small number of people that were what we called closeted Pluto files, but most most of the constituency that was making the case why we should do this instead of many other types of things we could have done is was was much, much larger. I mean, you can’t stay in the closet. There was a huge constituency. They wanted to get this done and ultimately triumphed. And the book is really about a group of people with a dream to do something larger than life. And then we got some doors slammed in our face and we had to learn our way through the system. We were pretty young scientists, most of us in our late 20s and early 30s when we got started. But ultimately, we conducted the farthest exploration in the history of humankind and really revolutionized our knowledge of the outer solar system horizons. 

And it feels so obvious for a target in hindsight, like it just seems like, of course, where we need to go that far. But I was really taken aback by the level of resistance that you guys seem to face over the many years that you were working on this. There was some real hostility, like you mentioned in the book. There are some misdeeds. You say there are hazards, threats, misdeeds and misfortunes. I feel like I have an understanding of what you. Talking about with misdeeds. Because I know that you faced what seemed like some, I don’t know, sabotage here and there where people were trying to undermine each other as far as the different competitive projects were concerned. Is that what you meant? 

Well, it was a very serious competition. And just like in the in business, the stakes were high. There were competitors who wanted to win the project, who didn’t. Because we won in some sense, they were threatened by our triumph. And they took it in their own hands to see that the project got canceled. If they couldn’t have it, nobody could have it. And so, you know, this is what makes, I think, Chasing New Horizons. Such an interesting book. 

And unlike any others, it really does discuss what really goes on behind the scenes and not just in the politics, but also in in the building of a spacecraft and in the flight across the solar system. It’s really behind the scenes how it really works on every level. And it’s a story that’s not just a narrative, but it’s told by over two dozen people who we interviewed in first person passages throughout the entire twenty five year saga. 

So you hear these voices from everyone, from NASA administrators of the day, people who ran NASA to scientists and engineers on the team, some of the competitors, and that just a wide cast of of characters. It really brings it to life. 

You had that period after New Horizons had finally launched. You’re saying goodbye to it. Finally, after all this work and you have this long stretch while he travels to Jupiter. That’s the next time you’re going to hear from it or so. Now, you’re not doing nothing during this period, but it can’t be anything like these mad scrambles that you had in the run up to the actual encounter. So what happens during that length of time is like a lot of crossword puzzles. You take up knitting or what happens during the big traveling period. 

I wish actually the flight Jupiter was record setting. No spacecraft had ever made that half billion mile journey so fast. 

After all, New Horizons was the fastest spacecraft ever launch. We covered almost a million miles every day, half a billion miles. That’s five hundred million miles to Jupiter. We did it in 13 months flat. Other space missions had taken for six years even longer. You know, during that period, we had to check out the spacecraft after it was launched. Every system, every backup system, make sure that they were all functioning correctly, put them through their paces. Then we had to commission all seven scientific instruments and get them calibrated to use it. The Jupiter flyby. Meanwhile, we’re making course corrections and tracking the spacecraft and making sure that it’s going to hit the proper aim point to Jupiter to direct it onto Pluto. Because if we miss that aim point, it’s game over. The spacecraft that’s going somewhere else, not its primary objective. 

And at the same time that we were doing all those things, we had to plan a Jupiter flyby with over 700 scientific observations. So my little team would have been twenty five hundred people during the build phase. But in fact, we’re down to 50 bellybuttons. That’s the scientists, the engineers, the flight controllers. That’s the project management. That’s the secretary. It’s everybody. 

50 people had to do all the things I just described and do them in 13 months and flawlessly. Or the Jupiter flyby would have had problems, which, you know, fortunately, we we managed to get everything just right. 

And so far from playing tiddledywinks and crossword puzzles, we were working madly from the minute we launched all the way through, we got to Jupiter and then the data from Jupiter started raining down. And so we never we never had a break. 

So even if you pass by Jupiter, I think New Horizons goes to sleep more or less. Is that right? 

Right. We had we developed this technique called hibernation, where we turn off most of the spacecraft systems and we put it on autonomous mode watches after itself. And that means that we can take our small team. And instead of babysitting the spacecraft, sitting at mission control consoles seven days a week, the spacecraft taking care of itself and we can start to plan the fly by Pluto, which is we lay that out in Chasing New Horizons. That chapter with one of my favorite titles, it’s called Battleplan Pluto. 

And it’s how you go about not just planning a flyby, but all the backup plans, all of the malfunction procedures, all the simulations that you do, all the cross training of personnel, all of the plans for the onslaught of press attention, all of the ways that we could have gotten into trouble with hazards at Pluto and had to dodge debris. All of that is laid out. And for, you know, for a team of 50 people, that was a crushing workload, even with eight years to do it. 

There were so many close calls to it. Sounds like, especially once you got closer. It was it was really like even though, you know, the ending as you’re reading, you really feel like, oh, my goodness, this thing is really in danger. And particularly when you. Beginning of the book, when you talk about when you lost contact with the spacecraft before Pluto, and it made me wonder, like I tried to game that out in my own head, like after all this time, 10 years of travel and all these years beforehand of work, you lose contact with it. Then what happens then? Like what does that do to your team when it’s due to you? If the thing is just gone? 

You know, this was a Saturday afternoon, 10 days for reaching Pluto and only three days from the start of the flyby. 

And, you know, it’s the Fourth of July. So people are away at picnics and, you know, given the team a day off. And my phone rings, my my my cell phone rings and project manager. And I didn’t think he was calling to tell me how good is barbecue was. So I knew it was something important. And I picked up and I could hear from the timber in his voice. We had flown all the way across the solar system without having any major problems. And the first thing that Glenn said out of his mouth was, Allan, we’ve lost contact with the spacecraft. I’ll meet you in mission control about 10 minutes later. We were both there and people start streaming in from their family events. We had a phone tree and everybody gets called in. The engineers and the flight controllers and the senior management on the project came in. 

And it’s kind of a wild looking scene. You know, they had to make a movie. I mean, people are coming in and flip flops and shorts and tank tops and t shirts and so forth to rescue a billion dollar space mission. That’s the verge of flying by Pluto and not returning any results. 

And the stakes were very high. That team performed. People never left for three days around the clock. 

They were eating out of candy machines, sleeping on desks, sleeping under tables. 

It was around the clock operation. That reminds me a lot of the movie Apollo 13. 

What would have been the repercussions after if that had if that had not been solvable and you’d lost contact with it would have been what would’ve been the repercussions, do you think, on a broader scale? And not just obviously would be a crushing blow for you and your team, but for, you know, exploration like this in general? 

It would have been devastating, you know, for NASA’s reputation, for the reputation of the United States. It would have been embarrassing. 

There would have been probably congressional inquiries. How could this happen? Or what actually happened was you couldn’t have written a better plotline for a movie. You know, here was an existential threat with almost no time to fix it. 

And this little team swung into action and did what was almost impossible. 

They did six months of work because it taken us six months to get ready. 

They had to repeat all that because the plans that we had put on the spacecraft, dozens of software files and all of the scripts that take the spacecraft through its flight plan had been raised. 

And we had to get it back up there three billion miles away, not over a six month period as we had been methodically preparing. But over we had 78 hours. Yeah. It’s like it’s like get it right or go home. 

I only have a few more minutes with you. So I want to go a little broader. Almost every president of the past couple of generations has promised that we would send humans to Mars. And we have Elon Musk having his master plan for Mars colonization. And so I’m curious, what do you think of those kinds of goals, missions to Mars, manned missions to different worlds? Are those the things we should be prioritizing? Or do you feel like things that are similar to Voyager and New Horizons? Are are they something that is more valuable for us to be investing in right now? 

Oh, I don’t think it’s a choice between the two. We should be doing. It’s a little bit like asking, you know, I’m sitting down at a meal and you say, would you rather eat your meal with with a fork and knife or a spoon? It turns up different tools for different purposes. And if you take any one off the table, it’s really hard to do the soup with a fork. And it’s really hard to cut your meat with a spoon in all of them. We need unmanned missions that can go very far away like Pluto, because we don’t have the technology to send humans there. And we need humans to explore the moon and Mars and the asteroids because there are tremendous opportunities for resource mining and for energy and frankly, for the inspiration of young people to go into tech careers, which is what fuels this economy. And, you know, space is been for many decades a very seductive Andre to engineering and science careers. And you talk to people like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. They were swept off their feet by the exploration of Apollo in the early space shuttle missions and so forth. And even though they went into, you know, the Internet and computing revolution, they made these fortunes because they were motivated to go into very hard subjects like physics and electrical engineering by space exploration. And throughout the tech industry, you find countless stories of people who were engaged by space exploration. That put them into tech careers. We even find that on New Horizons in the book, actually in the closing pages, talks about the kids that have written this from high school and parents that have said, you saved my son, you motivated him to go and turn himself from a slacker to a straight A student. Now he wants to be, you know, involved in space exploration. All of this. The both the unmanned and the human exploration. And this is let’s face it, this is the 21st century. This is where Star Trek begins. We need all this. 

Did you anticipate that kind of enthusiasm for new horizons? Because it really was quite overwhelming. And even for something as exciting as it is, it was just on paper. I was even surprised by just the love pouring out for this little planet. 

I agree with you. You know, I theoretically expected it. I knew that it would be something that would have emotional impact, that would stir people’s patriotism, pride of our species. A little spacecraft that could do a little plant. Good. All that. But what? But when it really happened and it became personal to me. People would see me in airports and come up and talk about their personal experiences with seeing this happen and how proud they were that this country was on its game. And, you know, I would give a talk and a hundred people would line up and a mother would come to me in tears in the receiving line and say, You saved my son. He was a slacker. And now he’s a straight-A student. 

And, you know, a young woman told me in Vermont that their generation, basically millennials have been told that they’d missed all the great events of human history, that their parents and grandparents had seen world wars and saved the world from fascism. And they’ve been around for moon landings and the computing revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall and missed it all. And they were living to this duller time and new horizons happened. And she said it was transformational for her and her her friends in college. And to have people actually come up to me and tell me those things was a kind of impact that I had not anticipated. And frankly, it still happens to this day. And I’m very proud of what we did as a team on New Horizons. And I’m so proud of the people that stuck with it, against all the reversals and all of the challenges and really just persisted and made something wonderful happen. 

I think that is an excellent place for us to end. Alan Stern, thank you so much for spending this time with me today. The book is Chasing New Horizons Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto. I appreciate your time today, sir. 

Oh, you bet. That was a fun. Take care. 

Now here’s astrobiologist David Grinspoon. David Grinspoon, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Thanks very much. I’m happy to be talking with you. 

Before we get into anything regarding the book where Pluto specifically, I feel like there’s something we need to address on your Web site, on Twitter. You have the handle funky science. So I need to know where does that come from? And what is so funky about your science in particular? 

Well, that’s good. That’s a legit question. I feel it is. Yes, I am. 

In addition to being a scientist and a writer, I’m also a musician. It’s something that I’ve had as part of my life. You know, as long as I can remember, I played in high school bands and college bands. 

And when I was an undergraduate, had a band called The Geeks. And then I, I toured with a reggae band while I was in grad school. And now I’ve got this outfit called The House Band of the Universe. And so it’s always been something that I’ve done. That doesn’t really affect my science. Well, I think it affects how I communicate about science, because I’ve found that through music I connect with people in a different way than I do necessarily. There are it’s made me aware of how to connect with people and different kinds of people in a way that maybe just strictly my scientific training didn’t equip me. So I do feel like it affects the way I teach and the way I communicate and work with a crowd of people and interact. And so and, you know, the question of what is funk? 

It’s a really fascinating musicological, psychological, cultural question. We probably shouldn’t try to get into now, but I don’t have time for that one. 

You’re right. 

But in short, funky science for me is is just a very brief handle that encapsulates some aspect of maybe my personality. 

So just to set things up as an astrobiologist. Now, you’ve been part of a lot of big exploratory missions. And while you were not directly involved with the New Horizons mission from the beginning, you did have an important connection to it. So can you kind of explain what your role was with New Horizons? 

Yeah. You know, I’ve been sort of orbiting on the periphery of of New Horizons for a long time. 

You know, first of all, it’s just, you know, I’ve known Allen really since the beginning. You know, we met right around the time he started scheming about how to make Pluto mission happen. And a lot of his comrades in arms in the Pluto underground happened to be just some of my oldest and best friends from grad school people that I’ve known before. They were even in the Pluto underground. And so I’m very close to the team personally and professionally, just being a planetary scientist. And I was in Boulder when all this started happening. I had just moved to the university, Colorado and had started as a assistant professor there. At where? In the same department. In the same building, Alan and Fran Bag and all were there and some others starting to Rabble-rouser Pluto mission. So so I was sort of down the hall and at the same meetings and seeing what my friends were were going through. That was the beginning of my involvement. And then at various times I was involved in other ways. In the book Chasing New Horizons, you’ll read about this influential committee, the Solar System Exploration Subcommittee, the SS E.S., which at the time in the 90s and the early 2000s was the highest level NASA advisory committee that really was influential and in ranking priorities of missions. 

And I was on that committee. I was one of the people in the SSA. Yes. In the room helping to make decisions in the book. 

We don’t really draw attention to my role because that was sort of a decision we made that I wasn’t gonna pop pop in and out as a character. With more, there is a narrator. But but I have some insight and I’m able to write about it as somebody who actually was there and and participating on that committee. So I was involved in some of those political ups and downs that we write about. And then, of course, I was there at the launch and cheering and crying and tears of joy with everyone else. And then actually, I did get involved more explicitly in the approach to Pluto and the flyby itself. I was involved in the communications team and I served as a liaison between the science team and the media, sort of an ill time during the fly by helping to explain what was happening and explain the science and, you know, act as a conduit between the science team and all the media that were there asking for interviews and explanations of things. And then by that time, Alan and I had agreed to write a book together. So I was also there as a sort of narrator and close observer and knowing that we were going to try to tell this story. You know, when the dust settled. And so I was, you know, kind of already aware of. That role that I was going to play is collaborating with Allen, the principal investigator, and trying to really explain to people what was behind and and within this this experience of this mission. 

Yet you describe in the book how NASA sells the romance of space exploration to the public. But when NASA sells these things, they emphasize the hole where no one has gone before. Angle that there’s this romantic attitude, though, doesn’t reflect actually how decisions about missions are actually made. If it’s not just about how cool the mission would be. So what are the boxes that have to be checked before it’s deemed worthy of pursuing them? If it’s not just about the let’s go conquer Mount Everest field? 

Yeah, well, you know, first of all, I just want to preface this by saying this is definite, not an anti NASA book. No, no, not at all. We are NASA fanboys. 

But, you know, there is a certain simplification in the way these missions are often communicated about that that hides the actual mechanics, its internal struggles within the community to, you know, compete for the limited resources to get a mission flown. And one thing that’s interesting is that when you’re competing for missions, you have to make a science rationale for NASA, that there it’s not enough to say this is cool exploration. We need to go there and take pictures and return data because no one’s ever been there. 

And we’ll probably find really neat stuff. And, you know, this is raw exploration at its finest. That seems like really great motivation. 

But that’s that would work for me. Exactly. But NASA is not interested in that. They want a science rationale. 

So even if that’s your motivation, you know, emotionally, you have to go back and say, well, these are the questions that need to be answered and here’s why they’re high priority questions. And these are the specific observations that we are going to make that will help us answer these questions. You know, very specific science rationale to back up the exploration and that, you know, that makes sense. 

I mean, I’m not I’m not disparaging that we don’t disparage that. But it’s just an interesting disconnect because then when NASA goes out and communicates about their missions to the public, they say this is raw exploration. We’re going where no one has ever gone before and they sort of sell it. You know, according to this romantic criteria, which is not really their criteria for selecting things. And, you know, that’s all understandable. And we’re not really trying to put anyone down or diss anyone here. It’s just we’re trying to illuminate, you know, that the way the sausage is made is not completely the way that we sell the sausage. 

The but in hindsight, it seems like the wisdom to do the New Horizons mission seems so obvious. But at least from what I gather from the book is that’s selling a mission to Pluto was a really hard sell inside of NASA. And like to people who you’d think would would understand what a worthwhile curiosity it is. So what was what was the stumbling block there? 

Well, there’s there were several things. One is that it seemed so far away. 

It is so far away and the timescale involved, you know, when you’re competing with other missions that are, you know, it can be over and done and have their data back in the papers published in a third of the time that it takes to even just fly to Pluto. You know, that that was daunting for people. And, you know, people are people. And also, you know, you want something to be finished when you’re still alive and still working. And, you know, so the longer time horizon and it’s challenging from the point of view of people’s careers and lives, you know, getting committed to something. That was one thing. Another thing was that a lot of people just genuinely didn’t think it was that scientifically interesting. It was an oddball world on the fringes of the solar system beyond Neptune. It was a curiosity, maybe didn’t have important secrets to reveal that would tell us anything more than what this oddball place send us before it was demoted to sub planet status, as it were. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Before all that, it was just like and you know, it’s maybe it’s not that interesting. And is it really worth all the effort? And then of course it was competing. There’s fierce competition legitimately with other other goals. 

People wanted to, you know, go back to Europa. People want to go. 

I mean, personally, I really want more missions to Venus. That’s one of my bailiwicks. And, you know, we all different other agendas that they were they were competing against. 

But then during the 1990s, when all these struggles were happening, Pluto became more interesting scientifically. And that had to do with the discovery of the Kiper Belt that it turned out all these other objects were being discovered out there. 

And it turned out that Pluto was not alone and was not just an oddball, weird misfit out there, but was in fact, the tip of the iceberg of this whole previously unknown realm of the solar system that, once it was discovered, is clearly very important in the whole story of the origin of the solar system. It’s a major part of the architecture of our solar system. And so then it became clear that by exploring Pluto, you were not just going. And there’s a long quest to this one weird oddball place, but delving into, you know, taking a first look at this very important, previously unknown realm of the solar system. So Hutto’s role in our discovery of our own home solar system became much more essential when that was discovered. And that really helped ultimately the idea of a put on mission to rise to the very top of NASA’s priority list for new missions. 

Yeah, which was counterintuitive to me because I mentioned to Alan that I thought perhaps finding out that Pluto is one among many similar objects in a larger neighborhood would make it less interesting because it has so many other similar neighbors around it. 

Yeah, I could see how you would think that. It’s like, oh, it’s not so special. Right. Are lots of objects out there. 

But in reality, it made it more special because it is the largest and brightest of of a whole important, unexplored realm. 

So by going there, it was sort of we would unlock the key of this important part of the solar system that we hadn’t even known about previously. And that and that seems it seems important, not just because it itself is another oddity, but because you only form of Kiper Belt as as a byproduct of forming the entire solar system. And there’s leftovers stored there from from the formation of the planet. So and stored in pristine condition, presumably because it’s so cold and not that much is happening out there, you know, in terms of external processing. So so this could really be a place unlike any other where we could find clues to the origin of a lot of planets, including our own. So, you know, search for our own origins in a way can be strongly enhanced by exploring the Kuiper Belt. 

You know, you use the word place there and actually maybe you using that in the book of referring to how New Horizons had made Pluto a place, which reminded me of how Carl Sagan used to describe Mars when we finally put a lander on there that Mars had become a place. 

And it connects us to this this distant world as though it were now not an abstract idea. But now a real place where people can set their feet down, you know, theoretically. So I remember when that happened, when the first images started coming in and the social media feeds are blowing up and people are so excited now. It seemed completely overwhelming now. But I have to say that my social media feeds are full of nerds and other smarty pants types who I would expect to be excited about Pluto. So I’m not a great judge of that. So for the broader public response to new horizons, did you get the kind of moon landing level excitement that you were hoping for? 

Beyond that, beyond what I think anyone was hoping for. And you’re right. I mean, I have I have the same sort of filter. My my feeds are not only space nerds, but. 

Highly populated with space nerds who get excited about things like this. But there were many ways to gauge the wider support. I mean, especially I was went there as a liaison with the press and seeing the way around the world. The media responded, you know, newspapers on on every continent. You know, Allen used to say every continent but Antarctica. And then we found out that the little paper there in McMurdo had new horizon on the excellent shelf. You know, just the outpouring of interest and excitement and, you know, on the Web, the global instantaneous excitement and participation. We keep hearing these stories even, you know, while we’re out on this book tour for Chasing New Horizons. Alan and I have met some people at some of our events. So there’s this guy who is the head of the Astronomical Society of Giana. And he described during the encounter he and his colleagues there in Giana on on their laptop, you know, hitting refresh and watching the pictures. And just just cheering and feeling like we did it. You know, not these guys over there and in America did it. But like, we humans did it, you know, feeling that identification with the exploration project. And that was tremendous. And then and then we met this other guy the other night who was telling us that during the flyby he was in a bunker in in Kabul underground, you know, serving in the service and with our antiquated computer system, there was like frantically hitting refresh during the encounter and watching the new images come in and just, you know, so this this picture of the world experiencing it together and this widespread interest among so many far flung corners of, you know, the human race that are now connected. You know, it’s sort of in a way, it’s the best of us. You know, we’re off break right now by some of the negative consequences of connectivity and fake news and bots. And, you know, all this weird, weird implication of this connected age we have. But but there’s some wonderful aspects of it, too. And there’s so many ways in which I think New Horizons exemplifies that the best of humanity and the best of our age. And the fact that that connectivity could make the experience so democratic and so widely shared that people all around the world could go through it together and kind of experience it together and communicate with one another about it. You know, to me, that’s kind of miracle and wonder of our age. 

That’s an excellent thing to remember. I’m glad you said that. And, you know, I’m curious. So what flows from that kind of huge emotional public response and what’s three years later? 

Can you know now you’re on your book tour, so you’re seeing this, I guess, firsthand. Tell whether the enthusiasm for that mission is paying dividends in terms of long term public and political support for additional space exploration. Can you see the impact of new horizons today in 2018? 

Yeah. Very much so. I mean, again, you know, I have to be trying to be objective and rational. I have to go back to what we’re talking about for water. My filter, sir. And yeah, when people come to our events are probably, you know, there’s observational selection, as we say, in the business. 

You know that the people that show up, but not it’s not all to space geeks like some of the places we’ve spoken. We spoke at the public library in Ann Arbor, Michigan. You know, not it wasn’t not a science. And we’ve done some science centers and planetarium, but also some just general interest, places like that, like the public library. And the place was packed. 

And there were clearly a lot of people there that were very moved by new horizons and felt like it was an important event for them. 

And we’ve been hit we’ve heard a lot of stories of kids that were inspired and, you know, affected their approach towards their studies in school and wanting to be a part of exploration and wanting to learn science. 

And so in terms of the public that the societal impact, I feel like that that’s tangible. 

You know, it may not be as tangible as, you know, the Sputnik moment when our country committed itself in this way to science and education. 

But there’s there’s a there’s a ripple of that for sure of that. 

And then as far as exploration support for planetary exploration, again, you know, these things are hard to gauge. But I would say I would point out that planetary exploration is doing OK now, even in these budgetary times when, you know, in some ways science feels under attack in our society. And there are intense budgetary wars going on. You know, there is this kind of bipartisan support for space exploration. And, of course, those of us working in planetary exploration and in NASA, we never feel like we have enough funding. 

We want to. I want the budget to be doubled, tripled, raised tenfold. But I will report that it’s it’s healthy and that it’s not decreasing. In fact, we’ve had modest increases in our planetary exploration budget recently. So I don’t believe in a single cause, explanations of anything. You can’t say this is all because of new horizons. But, you know, to have something so visible captured the imagination. Such an obvious success of a low cost, you know, bold mission of exploration that got so much public attention. You know, I think it would be foolish to claim that that did not have an effect in that way. 

Yeah, that makes sense to me. So you’ve already mentioned this, that you’re interested in Venus being the next target for exploration. Do you think that’s what should be the next priority? And what is what is it about Venus that you’re interested in in particular? 

Well, I mean, when you say the next, it’s so hard to. It’s like choosing among your children, because I really believe I really believe we need to explore widely and we gain insight from going to so many different places in the solar system and through comparative climatology, which requires we explore broadly. But I do have a particular interest in Venus because it’s a place that we just haven’t explored enough. 

The last time the United States launched a dedicated mission to Venus was 1989 that Magellan, and especially now with exo planets and learning that there’s so many Venus like places. And. And this question of why a planet goes down the Venus path or the Earth path in terms of its climate development and its potential to support life. You know, there’s a lot of illumination of our own planet that can occur through studying a planet that’s so nearby and so similar. 

And I think because Venus is a hard place to explore, because the surface environment is so extreme and because you can’t see the surface from orbit, we’ve sort of shied away a little bit and gone to some other low hanging fruit. 

But the result after a couple of decades of this is that there’s a big hole in our understanding of our own solar system. Venus shaped hole of our own neighbor. Yeah. Yeah. And so I do see a growing movement to go back and do the missions we need to to really fill in those blanks and understand the story of Venus and what it tells us about the story of Earth. 

So before I let you go, because running out of time, I haven’t astrobiologist on the show, so I have to ask you about extraterrestrial life a little bit. Aaron, you have become sort of a pessimist about the discovery of finding life elsewhere. I had Li Billing’s from Scientific American on the show last year and he has that wonderful book, Five Billion Years of Solitude, about that whole search for extraterrestrial intelligence isn’t things. And I know there’s a difference between finding more microbial life, say, on Titan or intelligence or something vs. finding intelligent life. But it looks just now in the news we have the Congress is suddenly interested in giving some additional funding to study the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which is not something one would normally expect. So I’m very excited about this. Don’t get me wrong. As exciting as that is, it feels to me now like that’s a real shot in the dark. So I’m hoping maybe you can convince me otherwise. It’s something less, said he, a good investment? 

Absolutely it is. There’s no basis for pessimism. I mean, we human beings are we crave instant gratification and we sort of think ultimate. 

We think inherently reflexively on short timescales. You know, we don’t live that. We don’t live very long. And so we you know, if something doesn’t happen within some span of our lives, we think, oh, that’s never going to happen. And so we we sort of draw these conclusions based on very limited data. And, you know, the initial steady investigations are you can think of it like the initial looking for life on Mars, where with Viking we had these sort of maybe naive assumptions and we said, let’s just go and plunk down the Viking lander and sprinkle the soil with water. And the microbes will start dancing around happily and will observe and then we’ll find life on Mars. And then we didn’t we didn’t we didn’t conclude there’s no life on Mars. We concluded, oh, we have to have a more deep appreciation of the nature of life and how it might unfold on other worlds. And now we don’t think there’s no life elsewhere because we didn’t the Viking experiments didn’t succeed. We chalk it up to naivete. I think, you know, in 1959, Morrison and Conconi wrote this brilliant paper pointing out that radio communication was one obvious way to potentially detect and communicate with other civilizations. And Frank Drake, around the same time, had the same insight and started looking. And, you know, now we’re less than a century after that and didn’t hear anything in those first attempts. Those are like the Viking experiments of Setti. And you know what? Maybe the aliens don’t read Nature magazine. They don’t have a strategy that exactly fits with our very first thought of how one might do it. There’s no basis to assume, based on that silence, that silence, suppose it’s silence. You know, even with radio, we haven’t looked very far along. There’s a lot of targets we’ve only looked at once. Maybe they on air that five minutes we scrapped. 

We. I mean, even scratch the surface. And even if we did, it’s not necessarily radio that at all that is laden with assumptions about their capabilities and motivations. I am I’m a supporter of Radio Saidee. It’s one obvious way to look. But there’s other interesting approaches that are becoming possible now that we haven’t tried. You know, the the exo planets are here now. They weren’t here when said he started. And we are beginning to realize that we can observe them for bio signatures. Well, while we do that, let’s also observe them for techno’s signatures. So it’s the kind of thing we’re in a way, you’re right. It’s a shot in the dark. 

It has to be because we don’t know anything. 

But it’s a shot in the dark that may well pay off hugely one day. And, you know, humans aren’t very good at patience and realizing that, like, well, this could be an important endeavor, even if I don’t expect it to necessarily succeed in my lifetime. But I think it has to be our attitude with. We have to acknowledge our ignorance. We have to support the search because we certainly can’t conclude that it’s it’s futile, futile and worthless. And we have to recognize that it could be the most important discovery we ever make. And that, by the way, while we’re searching, we’re learning lots of other cool things about the universe. And it’s not a waste of time. 

All right. I feel a lot better about it now. Thank you. I appreciate that. That makes me feel better. So we wish something here, OK? Well, that’s all the time we have left. David, it’s been a real pleasure. Thank you so much for coming on. Point of inquiry. Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure talking with you. 

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Paul Fidalgo

Paul Fidalgo

Paul Fidalgo has been communications director of the Center for Inquiry since 2012. He holds a master’s degree in political management from George Washington University, and has worked previously for FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy and the Secular Coalition for America. Paul is also an actor and musician whose work includes five years performing with the American Shakespeare Center, and he currently directs productions for the University of New England Players. In 2017 he was the second Richard Kirschman Free Thought Fellow at the Mesa Refuge in Point Reyes, California. His work also appears in the 13th book of the Dark Mountain Project. He lives in Maine along with his two dangerous kids. His personal blog is Near-Earth Object, and he tweets at @paulfidalgo.