The successful fly-by of Pluto in July 2015 by the spacecraft New Horizons captured our imaginations like nothing else in recent memory. Just think of it. NASA had a very narrow window to launch the spacecraft— a moment when Pluto was closest to the sun, making its atmosphere easier to study (an event that would not recur for two more centuries)— and when the planet Jupiter was in the right position for its gravitational field to give the craft just enough boost to reach Pluto, reduce travel time by four years and save hundreds of millions of dollars.
Then consider that reaching Pluto required a 3-billion-mile, 9-year journey! It was the most distant place ever reached by a U.S. spacecraft. Astrobiologist David Grinspoon said, “The trip was, in a way, the last ‘first’. Never again will we approach a major destination in our solar system for the first time.”
Stunning photographs and data from Pluto have already been shared publicly, but it will take another 16 months to receive the last bits of information from space. Scientists hope the New Horizons mission will provide clues to better understanding the formation and composition our solar system—and the origin of the human species. Caltech physicist Sean Carroll said, ”In cosmic terms, the age of exploration has just begun. Ten thousand years from now, we’ll look back and laugh at how impressed humans used to be at crossing an ocean—and how intimidating it seemed to cross the space between the stars.”
Flinging a spacecraft to a successful rendezvous at the edge of the solar system was indisputably a stunning achievement. How far we’ve come since 1969 when Neil Armstrong and his crew landed on the moon using computer technology that’s now routinely installed on consumer laptops! The pace of technological innovation is unprecedented—and doesn’t seem to be slowing anytime soon.
But as one woman’s poignant letter to the editor of the New York Times reminds us, “The successful mission into space was remarkable, yet, on Planet Earth, we still haven’t figured out how to respect and live with one another.” Sad but true.
If all of us could travel to Pluto, we might view earth from afar and have a better perspective on our miniscule and vulnerable place in the universe. Perhaps, then, we’d be shocked into realizing that survival as a species depends on becoming better companions on our mysterious, earth-bound journey through space—a journey over which, ultimately, we have little control.