The Pluto Encounter as I Experienced it

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The Journey

50 years to the day after we got our first close look at Mars, mysterious Pluto would at last yield many of its secrets. I long ago resolved be at APL for this event. I have in my career nurtured contacts, affiliations and friends across the Planetary science community. We share the desire to see new places explored, and the visually intriguing things about this subject have often inspired me to paint what other worlds are like, often even as the initial images were revealing these places. For a time my ability to go to this event was in question as traditional avenues were proving unfruitful. This time I would be at the 'Most Important spot on the planet' at that moment thanks to the kindness of some friends affiliated with the planetary science community, who wanted me to be there and could do something about it.

I this received an invitation to attend the encounter as a guest. After a bit of a flurry of activity after checking what my spam filter discarded including my registration details, I at last printed out my bar coded invite as well as regional maps. I had already made my travel arrangements, first for the room in Columbia, MD, over a month in advance then the rental car and finally the flight. Studying maps of the area I drew a labeled highway chart optimized to be glanced at while navigating the area and checked against the car GPS screen.

As I prepared to leave home for the Encounter, the hemisphere of Pluto we would see well was just beginning to rotate into our clearer view, and Charon was being seen slightly better than our Moon appears to the naked eye

After a smooth flight there, traveling only with a modest carry on bag with cloths and minimal material, I arrived at the Boston/Washington Airport and was soon driving along the zigzag path between a few freeways cut into a lush green countryside. After I checked in, I took a walk as night fell. I saw a green floating speck wink on and off, and I realized it was a Firefly! I had never seen one up close, I walked up to it, held my hand that the almost wasp like fly lit on, and watched it pulse a green light in its abdomen the color of a green glow stick. Then it flew away into the night. I looked for others but saw none. My only experience before then with fireflies was in a Greyhound bus traveling across the United States in the early 1970s, somewhere in the Mid West night. Pale green sparkling scintillation spread out from us like etherial waves across the plains as the bus sound presumably activated their flashes.


The Day Before

The next day things were getting under way at 12:30 PM Eastern Time as printed in the invitation. Upon arriving somewhat early the driveway into the Lab was only congested a little with traffic. I had my printed invite ready to show, but at this point I was simply motioned into the 'Blue Lot' region by a courteous armed guard. The walk to the lab from the car brought home the nature of the climate there, hot and quite humid. There were then scattered clouds and less defined hazy masses of compacted moisture coming and going with too much Sun in between. By the time I got inside the APL facility I was sweating terribly, and glad I had brought light shirts. Once inside the air conditioned building, large desks with attentive and helpful staff looked up my name, as I recall they didn't bother to scan the code bar on my invite and I got my 'Red Badge' which allowed me access to the areas not used exclusively by the media.

There were signs forbidding the use of recording equipment and cameras, however there was no attempt to enforce this and cameras were in use everywhere. This time I only used the cameras in my Apple devices, both the still and video working well in those conditions. For the two 'main events' of the Encounter I used three tiny video devices running at once, held together before me. There were printed mission timelines in stacks on a table toward the rear of the entrance area. Beyond this a lower level partitioned with hand rails along the upper ledge opened up down a few steps to a large wide space with tables, empty space, rows of chairs and huge monitors and projection screens showing relevant video. The place had almost the feel of a spacious cruise ship.

Going back up the steps and facing the entrance and the registration desks, to the left was the media room which was full of busy people, a well guarded open door with harsh white light inside. To the right was a staffed entrance to a huge theater auditorium. This was a cavernous space with many rows of theater seating and a wide stage with nicely prepared space backgrounds. Giant screens above the stage magnified whoever was speaking.

Already on Monday a lot of people had arrived, dozens of groups standing everywhere inside with spontaneous traffic patterns of people forming and reforming around them. Everywhere you looked you saw giants in the space field. I immediately saw familiar faces, and exchanged the first of many hellos. I was recognized by a few, and we had a few celebratory words between us. Various careers were represented, from those in the media who had long covered the subject to younger journalists from on line media, writers for magazines and space fans who have followed planetary exploration all their lives. Even a few space artists made it to this event, like everyone else there to celebrate an event taking place nearly three billion miles away. There was a sense of amazement, of accomplishment, and perhaps even a little sadness. For the Pluto encounter was the last of the 'firsts' in exploration of the major planetary bodies.

Among the guests at APL were the children of Clyde Tombaugh and James Christy and his family, thus giving a living connection with those who first revealed the targets of the mission we were gathered for. Through arrangement with his widow before she passed on, a vial of Clyde's ashes was placed on the spacecraft that would fly by the world he discovered. On that day before the Close Encounter I managed to briefly meet Alan Stern and exchange a few enthusiastic words.The mission team all wore characteristic black shirts which along with their distinct photo badges made them stand out wherever they went. That evening I had dinner with some planetary scientist affiliated friends including those who made sure I had a chance to be there, the din of conversation spread over two large tables. Then we retired early as the Great Day was tomorrow.


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