NASA's Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
In nearly four decades as an engineer and manager at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, Tom Coughlin was known for leading teams through tough assignments with dedication, enthusiasm and just the right amount of humor. And in the early 2000s he applied all of those traits as the proposal manager and first project manager for New Horizons, helping to shepherd the fledgling mission from design through flight confirmation.
Now, Coughlin is being honored for those roles with a tribute on the very world New Horizons was built to explore. Coughlin crater is one of four newly named features on the surface of Pluto, which New Horizons flew past in July 2015.
"Tom brought his skills from other pathfinding missions to make New Horizons a reality," said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute, who proposed the name to the International Astronomical Union. "When people thought the mission wasn't possible, he was able to show our team and even our toughest critics that it could be done. And that his feature is next to Pluto's own heart symbolizes his inspirational impact in leading the New Horizons team."
Coughlin, who died in 2014 at age 73, made several significant contributions to space science and engineering over his 36 years at APL. In the 1980s he served as mechanical systems engineer on the Active Magnetospheric Particle Tracer Explorers program, which created the first artificial comet in space, and he was instrumental to the success of Delta 180, serving as the science module program manager on the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization mission that demonstrated the feasibility of tracking and destroying an accelerating booster rocket in space.
Coughlin was also project manager for NASA's Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission, which made history in 2000-2001 as the first spacecraft to orbit and land on an asteroid. In addition to his roles on New Horizons – which he held from 2000-2004 -- he served as programs manager for APL's Space Department, overseeing all of the Laboratory's spaceflight activities.
"I'm humbled and grateful for this special honor awarded to my husband, Tom," said Joan Coughlin, Tom's wife of 51 years. "It is indeed special since New Horizons was his last mission before his retirement. He was grateful for his career at APL and especially proud of all the wonderful programs he had the privilege to explore along with his coworkers. He often said his success was because of the expertise and hard work of his fellow colleagues. I wish to extend my deep gratitude and appreciation to all who helped to make Tom's career a special and fulfilling one. How awesome to have a crater on Pluto bear the 'Coughlin' name."
Joining Coughlin crater on the official Pluto map are Hardie crater, honoring the late American astronomer Robert Hardie, who co-discovered Pluto's 6.4-day rotation period in 1955; Hyecho palus, named for the Korean traveler and scholar who journeyed across Asia from 724-727 A.D.; and Uncama fossa, named for the Zulu tale hero who followed a porcupine underground and came upon the village of dead souls.
All four names were proposed by the New Horizons team. Under IAU conventions, feature names on Pluto and its moons pay homage to underworld mythology, pioneering space missions that led to the capability to conduct New Horizons, historic pioneers who crossed new horizons in the exploration of Earth, and scientists and engineers associated with the study and exploration of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.
Joan Coughlin with the plaque presented to her by the New Horizons team, showing the location of Pluto's 20-mile-wide Coughlin crater. The feature, located near Pluto's famous heart-shaped glacier, is named in honor Tom Coughlin, New Horizons' first project manager. (Credit: Glen Fountain)
Tom Coughlin served as New Horizons' first project manager, leading the mission from the proposal stage through flight confirmation. (Credit: Johns Hopkins APL)