As we await the exciting results of New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto on July 14, it is all too easy to think that this mission was inevitable: the capstone to NASA’s spectacular exploration of all the planets (and ex-planets) of the solar system since the 1960s. Yet, it proved extraordinarily difficult to sustain a Pluto project.
It all started at a special public lecture at the Museum in July 2014 given by Alan Stern, the lead scientist for the New Horizons mission, which will fly past Pluto this July. Among the attendees was William Lowell Putnam IV, sole trustee of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona—the place where Pluto was found in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh. It was an exciting evening, not only to learn about the impending flyby but also having a chance to speak with Putnam and the director of the Lowell Observatory, Jeff Hall.
How did three staff members at the National Air and Space Museum get to collaborate on the Museum’s first children’s book, Pluto’s Secret: An Icy World’s Tale of Discovery? The short answer is that this is an extraordinary place to work. And when people are as generous with their time and talents as my collaborators have been, neat stuff happens.
The news that “Vulcan” topped the poll results taken by the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, California as a possible name for one of the two tiny moons newly discovered to be orbiting Pluto has gotten quite a bit of press this week. In 2012, Mark Showalter of SETI, working with scientists on the New Horizons mission sending a probe to Pluto, found a tiny fifth moon orbiting the icy world.