Two moments stand out to me in recent space exploration as examples early in my career in space of just why it is that I chose to pursue such a sometimes challenging path. The first was the landing of the Mars rover Curiosity in August of 2012. At the time, it was an unprecedented rover – larger, more capable, more powerful than its predecessors Spirit and Opportunity – and it was delivered by an unprecedented landing system that lowered the rover from the sky on a rocket-powered hovering crane. That image of the “sky crane” lowering Curiosity to the Martian surface, entirely automated because the lightspeed delay was too great for remote control from Earth, has always felt like a challenge to me to dare to do space differently and audaciously.
When New Horizons flew by Pluto in 2015, I had my second space moment. The last planet left unexplored and unvisited after the Voyager flybys, this visit to Pluto was exploration, chasing the final frontier, as much to prove that we could do it as because of the fantastic science that resulted. Like so many others, I waited eagerly for each new image and dataset to come down from the spacecraft, revealing an alien landscape so much more striking than any artist had ever imagined.
Since then, I’ve had the privilege of working on almost four dozen unique spacecraft. I’ve gotten to be part of everything from design and proposal to launch, operations, and disposals. I’ve even had the opportunity to command the very first contact with a satellite post-launch, and witness the purple glow of a krypton-fueled ion thruster firing in a thermal vacuum chamber. In the process, I’ve learned that there are similarities between spacecraft and space missions, and not just in terms of the technical aspects. Whether it’s because we all secretly want to be Captain Picard, or because we all have to overcome a similar set of challenges – operating a spacecraft remotely in the inimically hostile environment of space – space missions have resonances. Every mission seems to have its similar milestones, its similar challenges, its similar cultural language.
What is described in Chasing New Horizons, therefore, felt thrilling as an inside look at exactly the kind of project I would love to one day work upon, and deeply familiar. Though I’ve not fought for funding in the NASA bureaucracy, I’ve fought for it in other parts of the government. Though I’ve not worked on an interplanetary mission, I’ve worried over launch windows and endless delays. Though I’ve not listened nervously for a spacecraft’s reply across an entire solar system, I’ve sat on the edge of my seating waiting for that first bit of telemetry after an anomaly. The details might change, but Chasing New Horizons could be telling the story of other spacecraft, too.
In that respect, it wasn’t quite the book that I wanted it to be. My hope was for something more technical, something that drilled more deeply into the scientific, engineering, and operational decisions and considerations that went into the New Horizons spacecraft. We do get some of that, like discussions of the SWaP (size, weight, and power) tradeoffs the team made, and the delicate planning necessary to execute the closest approach flyby, but the author keeps things at a pretty high level. You definitely don’t need years of experience in the space industry to understand it.
Instead, this is more of a history book, exploring the process, trials, and tribulations by which the New Horizons project to study Pluto and the Kuiper Belt (the latter of which, when Alan Stern first began pushing for such a mission, we didn’t even know existed) came to be. It is at its best when it doesn’t try to be too much of a story – when Grinspoon tries to build up tension or set up cliffhangers or otherwise use storytelling techniques is usually where the book had the hardest time holding my attention. We all know that the spacecraft got funded, got to Pluto, and accomplished its science objectives, so trying to make us worry about whether or not it will work out is a little silly.
Reading Chasing New Horizons, I felt like I had a foot in both worlds. On the one foot, I’m enough of a space industry insider that I never needed to wait for Grinspoon to explain a term or a concept to me, and everything about the spacecraft operations especially felt very familiar to me, little different in any significant ways from any of the other spacecraft, scientific or otherwise, upon which I’ve worked. On the other foot, it is still my dream and goal to one day work on a mission of exploration like New Horizons, so this is a book of people who have done what I still aspire to do; in that respect, I still feel like an outsider looking in on something almost magical.
Whether you’re an outsider or an insider, someone who works with spacecraft every day or someone who dreams of one day witnessing a rocket launch, I hope that you’ll read this book, if only as a reminder of the thrill of exploration. There’s always something over the next hill, just beyond the horizon, and insatiable curiosity will one day propel us to find out what it is. I think that’s why we read, why we hike, why we write, why we build robotic spacecraft with plutonium radioisotope thermoelectric generators: we’re always Chasing New Horizons.