NASA's Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
Posted on January 21, 2021
New Horizons Principal Investigator
Southwest Research Institute
On this 15th anniversary of our launch of New Horizons, the story I want to recount is actually from the evening before our launch.
It was late on Wednesday, Jan. 18. I was in Florida for the launch. My main duty as mission principal investigator was to be a part of the launch team in Atlas mission control, and to give the final launch "go/no go" for the mission team. That night, I had the feeling our launch, by then twice delayed by weather, would go the next day. After a light dinner at a prelaunch reception, I decided to drive out from Cape Canaveral to the launch pad, because I had a nearly overwhelming desire to just stand by our Atlas rocket and wish it well. When I got there, the Atlas, topped with a special purpose third stage and our spacecraft, was bathed in floodlights. It stood over 220 feet tall— a monster. I had stood with the rockets of other missions I'd been PI of, but this one was more special. We'd worked 17 years to get a mission to Pluto, a goal that I'd often called "the Everest of planetary exploration," and I knew that the next day was going to be pivotal: either it would all work, or it would not, but either way, it would change my life and the lives of all of us on the New Horizons project.
After half an hour or so just standing there and thinking about it all, I quietly whispered to the Atlas, "Make us proud," and turned and left it forever.
Alan Stern stands in front of the Atlas V launch vehicle, with New Horizons perched atop in its protective fairing, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, in January 2006. (Credit: Alan Stern)
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