The Pluto Perspective

Posted on January 21, 2021

The Pluto Perspective: A Launch to Remember

The Little Spacecraft that Could – and Did

Alice Bowman

New Horizons Mission Operations Manager

Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory

On our first launch opportunity, Jan. 17, 2006, we didn't scrub until we had exhausted all the opportunities within our two-hour window. We continued to hope that the clouds would break long enough to allow us a chance to launch, but it was on to the next day ...

On Jan. 18, I got a call at 5:45 a.m. from the flight controllers on duty that the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab – where the Mission Operations Center (MOC) is located -- had no power. After a deep breath, I gave the news to Mission Systems Engineer Dave "Kouch" Kusnierkiewicz, who was at the launch site at Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and there was total disbelief in his voice. After all, the storm the previous night didn't seem that bad, and the power coming into APL was supposed to automatically switch over to backup. So we scrubbed again on Jan. 18, but only after huge generators were placed on campus, electricians rewired mission ops to run off generator power, and large cooling hoses were run through the MOC. The electricians had just finished rewiring – a job that should have taken them days, but they only took hours – when commercial power was restored and the launch was scrubbed. Then they had to undo all their work!

On Jan. 19, we had power at APL, but there was still cloud cover at the Cape. We progressed through the window and finally the clouds cleared enough for our launch at 2:00:00.221 p.m. -- the very end of our launch window! While we were extremely proud of the successful launch, the MOC team knew that we didn't have a viable mission until we received that first bit of telemetry from the spacecraft and could evaluate how it had fared during the launch. At 52 minutes and 40 seconds after launch, we received that first bit of telemetry from the Deep Space Network station in Canberra, Australia – showing nominal (or normal) status. We now had a mission!

I gave Kouch the good news, and our focus in the MOC turned to sending commands to the spacecraft, analyzing the data recorded since launch, priming the onboard propulsion system, "spinning down" the spacecraft from 62 rpm to 15 rpm, and making sure its autonomy system – which allows New Horizons to monitor and, if possible, fix its critical onboard systems -- was configured for post-launch operations. Eleven hours and 20 minutes after launch, the spacecraft mission operations and engineering team accomplished all the objectives, and we called it a day! Whew!

It's been 15 years since the launch, and I can remember details as if they were yesterday. But when I think about how much more we know of the Pluto system and the Kuiper Belt because of New Horizons, it's as if we've moved from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance at light speed. It seems appropriate to apply the phase, "to boldly go where no one has gone before." It's the little spacecraft that could and did increase humankind's knowledge of our universe. And it continues to venture into the unknown, slowly sending back bits of data whetting our appetite for the next bits to come.

In the Mission Operations Center at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Alice Bowman checks on the status of the New Horizons spacecraft just after launch on Jan. 19, 2006. (Credit: Johns Hopkins APL)

Next: A Fortunate Spare »