NASA's Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
Posted on January 21, 2021
New Horizons Project Scientist
Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory
The memories are flooding in as I reflect on the 15th anniversary of the New Horizons launch.
Several days before the launch, at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, I had sat in on NASA's final review of the mission's readiness to begin its unprecedented voyage of exploration. As the meeting participants were polled for their opinions, I became increasingly discouraged as one person after another said "no go" (that is, thumbs-down on the launch). I seriously wondered if NASA had become too risk-averse because there seemed to be no good technical reason why the launch should be delayed. But my mood completely changed when the buck was finally passed to NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, who decided to pull the trigger and give the "go" for launch!
On Jan. 19, I stood on a dock in the Indian River inlet with many other members of the New Horizons science team as we watched a flawless launch of the Atlas V-551 rocket carrying the spacecraft and instruments that would revolutionize our understanding of the Pluto system 9½ years later. Smiles broke out and cheers erupted as the significance of the successful launch sunk in. Years of intense, hard work could now be savored as we anticipated the many discoveries that would follow.
And at 11 that evening, I walked out on the deck of my hotel room to view the beautiful full moon and realized that the New Horizons spacecraft was already crossing a lunar distance from the Earth and was on a beeline to Jupiter, Pluto and beyond!
New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver, second from left, takes part in a prelaunch press conference at Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 15, 2006. (Credit: NASA)