Chasing New Horizons by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon

book space

I always thought that the most difficult part of a space mission was the technical one. “Chasing New Horizons” by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon revealed the political and managerial aspects behind one of the most epic (so far) space exploration missions of the XXI century - first-ever flyby of Pluto and its moons.

“The mission team suddenly found itself in a three-day race to salvage everything they had spent years planning and months uploading.”

NASA

Intro

The probe had to get close to Pluto within 7800 miles and be no more than 60 miles off course after its 9.5-year journey

“This was the equivalent of hitting a golf ball from L.A. to New York and landing it in a target the size of a soup can!”

Furthermore, it was a flyby, which meant they have only one chance of turning on all cameras and scientific instruments and pointing them in the right direction.

Dedication

The author of the book, Alan Stern, worked as Principal Investigator PI for the New Horizons mission. He spent over 25 years of his life trying to secure funding, get approvals, build the spacecraft, maneuver it via Jupiter towards Pluto, and programming the experimental tools to start the sequence of data collection. His team did an outstanding job.

Politics

All the effort required to get the mission approved and funded are crazy. I really could not believe the amount of approvals is required. Especially, the design of the spacecraft included plutonium as an energy source (solar panels perform poorly that far from the Sun), and it was common that getting approvals to carry plutonium might take over 10 years. TEN YEARS to fill enormous amounts of documentation, scenarios planning

Close calls

The book starts with a captivating story how the rover got disconnected only 10 days before the flyby, deleting part of the memory.

“If we’ve lost the spacecraft, this entire fourteen-year-long project, and the work of over 2500 people will have failed. We won’t have learned much of anything about Pluto, and New Horizons will become a poster child for dashed dreams and failure.”

It is mind-blowing how many things in the space exploration business can get wrong. Rockets blow up, hardware refuses to work in the extreme conditions of space, the software executes a buggy code, spacecraft get lost in the deep space, measurement tools start too early/late missing the perfect moment to perform scientific experiments, meteorites and space junk of various size fly ready to hit the vehicle.

“Over a period of many weeks, all seven scientific instruments checked out perfectly, but a near miss with disaster occurred during the LORRI instrument checkouts. Recall that LORRI is a high-powered telescopic camera. The problem: during one checkout it was accidentally pointed directly at the Sun for a few seconds. Just as you can blind yourself by looking at the Sun through a telescope, LORRI’s camera can be blinded in the same way. Of course, there was flight software to prevent this from ever happening, but there was a subtle mistake in the way that software was designed.”