I sat down with Dr. David Grinspoon, author of the new book Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto, to discusssome of the stories that shed light on NASA’s epic first mission to Pluto.
Sabrina Stierwalt: You are obviously a science communicator and an author, but you are also an astrobiologist, an advisor on space exploration strategy to NASA, a chair at the Library of Congress, and you’ve written about Venus and about aliens…so what made you decide to write about the New Horizons mission to Pluto?
David Grinspoon: Well, I love stories of exploration and I’ve been in love with space exploration my whole life. In addition to my own involvement in several planetary missions, I try to be as good a storyteller as I can. And I’m attracted to this story because this mission, New Horizons, is an incredible story. It’s a bunch of young dreamers who decided in 1989 that they wanted to send a mission to Pluto and were told that that was not a good idea, that it would never happen, it’s too far away and too expensive, and not important enough. And they didn’t let go of this idea. They were stymied in so many different ways and experienced so many setbacks. Then 26 years later they succeeded in sending this mission to Pluto. And then Pluto, of course, turned out to be extraordinary in terms of its scientific interest and its beauty and complexity and surprised us in so many ways.
So this story I think is emblematic of modern space exploration. It really shows you how it works. There are a lot of books that tell you what we discovered, but this one really tells you how it happens, how a mission goes from just an idea some people have to something that years later is fully realized. There’s a lot of detail in how that happens that people don’t know. This mission had it all—everything that could go wrong did go wrong and yet they persevered.