Friday, June 22, 2018

Book Review: Chasing New Horizons by Alan Stern & David Grinspoon

Chasing New Horizons by Alan Stern & David Grinspoon

Hardcover, 320 pages

Published May 1st 2018 by St. Martin's Press

One the hottest debates in the space nerd community over the last couple years surrounds the little planet Pluto. Out at the far reaches of our solar system Pluto has only been known to our science since the 1930's when Clyde Tombaugh using math and an analog telescope proved that there was another object out beyond Neptune. Eventually this planet was given the name Pluto, and in recent years it was demoted from Planet to Dwarf Planet. Look I am not a planetary scientist but being small in my opinion should not count against Pluto. Dwarf people are still people. Dwarf planets are planets.

We as a species had not been to Pluto, if you are not as into these things you might wondering why neither Voyager went to Pluto despite going deeper into interstellar space. Voyager 2 was supposed to but the mission was altered to do a pass of Saturn's moon Titan, they just couldn't pass up the amazing science at the mission planner's finger tips. Pluto again got the diss.

In fairness we as a species had not explored Pluto so we didn't know much about it. That was until 2015 and the New Horizons spacecraft. Once human beings sent a space craft called New Horizons we learned a lot so of course it was a no-brainer that we did it right? This book is not just the story of the journey to the planet but the one taken on earth to make it happen.

I know this is not the typical book I review, I mostly review horror novels and science fiction. I was sold to check out this book by the authors when they appeared on one of my favorite podcasts "The Weekly Space Hang-out." That show is linked here:

We learned so much about Pluto and the excitement level from space fans and the general public I assumed it was smooth sailing from earth to the millions of miles away in the deep solar system. This book is a fun read because it not only tells you the story of the planet but the mission and the human beings at the center of it.

I am not sure people understand the joy and excitement that mission planners feel at moments like the "Fly-by" or the Phone-home when a hibernating space craft wakes up after months alone in the void, but that is much of what makes this book special. Of course on the surface those things are cool but when you know the struggles it took to launch it makes it all the more intense.

I don't think most outsiders understand the tension involved in launching the spacecraft for example. You have a limited window when the planets line up. You have to hurdle your space craft at the exact right time 30,000 miles an hour into space. Get it wrong and it is for nothing. You also spent millions and millions of dollars to build 1 functioning machine. Spent years building, testing and loading software. No re-do's and not to mention you are putting it on a rocket. This book got the drama of that moment, the dueling proposals and planning right.

Even though I knew they made it to Pluto I shared in the ups and downs as a reader rooting for them. Once the spacecraft got into space the story of the science was compelling. We learned that Pluto has 5 moons, got video of the amazing dance the planet does with it's moon that is almost the same size. Who knew we had a binary planet in our own Solar system? (check out the video below) The topography on Pluto was so much more interesting than we expected. in the end the mission was beyond NASA and the planners wildest expectations and it is still going with another Kieper Belt object getting a fly-by this upcoming New Year's day.

In the end I suggest this book to people interested in space or science. New Horizons is a spacecraft built by human hands that has gone to the farthest depths of our Solar System. This is an amazing achievement and no matter how craft we send out into the solar system we should not lose sight of that. We need to celebrate the success of the mission but also the heart of human determination at the core of it.

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