The pictures of Pluto beaming down to us from that amazing little spacecraft called New Horizons are stunning—and utterly inspiring. Well, in my mind, everything about NASA’s mission to reach Pluto is stunning and amazing and inspiring. There it is, on the very edge of our solar system—and thanks to this idealistic mission, we can see it, study it, learn from it.
Reaching Pluto has been a dream since the Kennedy era, and probably since it was discovered some 85 years ago. We have now completed what NASA says is the “initial reconnaissance of the solar system.” As the cosmologist Stephen Hawking said in congratulating NASA, “We explore because we are human and we long to know.” A sentiment close to the heart of any educator, I think.
The success of this mission helps to reinforce in me a faith in American—no, make that human—competency and commitment. These may seem minor elements in this story, but think of it: New Horizons was launched over nine years ago. Pluto is over three billion miles away. At least three billion things could have gone wrong over that time, anything from a computer glitch to a chance encounter with a bit of dust that could alter, or completely destroy, the mission. And then, of course, there is the matter of time. Think of the persistence…the mind-set…the sheer patience of the scientists working on this project. (I wonder…could this mission have been conceived in today’s “instant gratification” culture?)
So this is a remarkable achievement: a “hallmark in human history” a leading NASA scientist called it. Surely on those days when we are less than confident in the world we occupy, this achievement offers hope and inspiration. In the months ahead, New Horizons will be feeding us data that will start to provide answers to our endless questions about our universe and ourselves. And the beauty of it is that the more we know, the more we want to know—that is, I think, human nature. Our capacity for wonder is ceaseless. In so many ways, thanks to New Horizons, we have just begun.