This is the story of the last first-look planetary probe to demoted mini-plant Pluto.
It took about 20 years to complete the mission. NASA politics, federal politics, scientific priorities, and launch windows impact the plot heavily. We call know how it turned out. New Horizons blew past Pluto at 30,000+ mph, snapping pictures like mad, pointing to where it hoped Pluto and its moons were at the time. Almost five hours later, a message arrived back at NASA, basically saying "Got it!".
Pluto turned out to have 5 moons and was itself not a boring snowball, but a geologically active world with tons of stuff to see.
New Horizons is the little space ship that could. It was tiny compared to Voyager. Its antenna could not rotate independent of the cameras, which meant when the probe was busy, it could not talk to Earth, and when it was talking to Earth, it could not do anything else.
Just a few days before closest approach, the main computer crashed and the backup took over. The computer had found itself overloaded and it bailed, which is reminiscent of the Apollo 11 computer overload that almost ended the first moon walk mission. As a consequence, the entire software package that drove all the mission science had to be re-uploaded. They had to sacrifice a few minor experiments, but they got the job done. In one exchange, a scientist asked about priorities. Her's was one of the experiments that may have to be abandoned in order to fix the ship. The reply was: Focus on the main mission goals. There was no argument and no tears. Everyone understood what was a stake and that was that. Would that politicians could be so egalitarian.
A launch goes through a few obvious phases: Project approval (a lot of politics and competing scientific priorities); Building the gizmo; Launch; Approach; and End Game. There is usually a lot of time between Launch and Approach… in this case about a decade. During that period, one of the authors studied how things might go wrong. One possible issue was the New Horizons mirror image on Earth. This device was identical to the real New Horizons and was used as a test bed for all software uploads. He reasoned that if it were to fail, and something were to go wrong in space, fixing it would be much harder. So he called for a second backup unit to be built. If it were not for the availability of this backup, the software reloads described in the preceding paragraph may not have been possible.
The story of New Horizons is full of science, exploring spirit, pit falls, recoveries, and miracle rescues. Real drama billions of miles from Earth! New Horizons is now millions of miles past Pluto, heading for an encounter with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO… this book has a lot of acronyms) in December 2019.
Two things worked for New Horizons. One was cheap computing power that meant that the machine could deal with most problems itself. The other was that they went by Jupiter, but did not go near Jupiter (which is a very dangerous area for unshielded electronics).
One of the great things about science is that it is apolitical. No one cares what your sex, or sexuality is, or about where you were born, or any of that other stuff. Everyone there was pulling on the same rope together, and all were ecstatic when the mission paid off.
I read it for just that perspective and quite enjoyed the read.
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.