The Pluto encounter of July 14, 2015

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The Great Day

 Tuesday, July 14 after a fitful sleep I woke up early to be there at 7:50 AM, the moment of closest approach. As it turned out virtually everyone there were also sleep deprived, especially Alan Stern who seemed to be everywhere. As the close encounter commenced Alan was in the position of Napoleon as a battle commenced once his orders were given, the action obscured in the smoke of war and the outcome of his orders unknowable until a messenger could make the journey back to report on the situation. Not only did the signal take 4 hours 25 minutes to travel from the spacecraft to Earth, New Horizons was concentrating on photographing and scanning the Pluto system with its antenna pointed away from Earth. As a precaution just in case, a series of 'fail safe data set' observations were executed and precious observation time sacrificed to transmit a kind of 'contingency sample' of data including an image of Pluto which was released early that morning to much fanfare. That best view of Pluto was revelatory in its detail.

This appeared on screens through out the APL and around the world. Not only were the brightness variation boundaries seen in great detail, near the terminator or night boundary there was varied surface relief. Darker areas could be seen to be wide plateaus, linear depressions stood out, and one prominent crater with a wide central mound stood out. Craters were otherwise rare suggesting the relatively young nature of the surface. This unveiling of a new world was in the grand tradition that started that day 50 years ago with the flyby of Mars by the Mariner 4 spacecraft, which gave us our first peek at what the 'Red Planet' was like.


 The first big milestone, the moment of closest approach, took place at 7:49 AM Eastern Time in total ignorance of the actual condition of the spacecraft, although every indication until then was that things were functioning perfectly and that no obstacles would strike the spacecraft at high speed. At the two main gathering points, the cavernous auditorium and the large guest area, big projected displays of the countdown to closest approach were shown. For so long they were showing the years, months, days, hours minutes and of course seconds remaining. Finally everything bit the last were zeros! The crowd chanted the final ten seconds as is done on New Years Eve, ending with a chorus of clapping, cheers and whistles. Hundreds of small American flags, picked up from stacks on tables, were waved by many. It was the moment mankind would have something closest to that world that there would be for a long time to come. The afternoon was a time of renewed socializing, and for seeking out people I thought would be there. I ran into some I had worked with in the past, and others who spoke of possible future endeavors which my abilities could be an asset to. In the mean time reports came in of the huge interest in the event on social media. it was a the top story on twitter and Facebook that day, many questions and answers were exchanged with team members, and in regards to NASA outreach it was its biggest day ever. The Pluto view released earlier that day was the greatest circulated NASA image ever posted. And the animated 'Google doodle' for that day was of new Horizons passing Pluto.

Whoever was in charge did very well, things ran smoothly at APL and everything I saw was very professional and generous to the gathered people. The guards were in good humor, the crowd was a classy celebratory group, and security was very low key. At every exit people in white shirts watched their area, presumably on the lookout for a problem or someone without a badge. Apparently a few people did try to sneak in without badges. I lost mine early and was promptly and courteously escorted to the front desk to get a replacement. The badges were in retrospect wisely not named, but I personalised my replacement. Some apparent default rules against the use of cameras were apparently tacitly ignored even though the notices were still up. Only the press room was especially strict in badge type to get in, however I was taken in there to be interviewed and had a quick look around. I was given a press kit by the media room supervisor. Mostly there were busy journalists in the brightly lit ring shaped room, a couple side rooms were devoted to on line activities by young people in desks. Kate McKinnon, the planetary angel who had arranged my invite, found me after my media area visit and rushed us to the event desk to have my badge upgraded from a blue one to red, which gave me access to more places. I could then openly walk past the guards into the main auditorium where VIPs were gathered both on the stage and in the audience for an event. There were seats as close as one wanted to be, so I casually sat in the front for much of the presentations.

The opening was a video hookup with Stephen Hawking praising the mission and congratulating the team. CNN newsreader Susan Malveaux then conducted the event. Clyde Tombaugh's children Alden and Annette were called to the stage and Alan Stern presented them with photo blowups of Pluto autographed by the mission team.

One panel discussion involved the mission team describing their initial reaction to the first images. Imaging team head and friend Jeff Moore, who waxed poetically about how Pluto had turned out more incredible than even the greatest space artists like Chesley Bonestell and Don Davis had imagined it! That was quite a thing to hear as part of the audience! Jeff spoke of what was to come in the days ahead as the images are downloaded from the spacecraft over the next 16 months. The head of NASA, and various dignitaries praised the mission and the team, with mention of the technical prowess of the United States in having visited every planet. Afterwards a dinner was then shared with numerous professionals in the planetary exploration business.

Carter Emmart, real time Planetarium animation guru, even drove in from New York to be here and was at the dinner. One team member at the table was surprised to meet me, she was a fan of my work! In another conversation at the table I suggested he do an image search with my name and 'space art; he soon exclaimed that he used a space colony image I did for NASA as his computer screen 'desktop'. As he was a visual artist we talked about the importance of learning to draw with traditional media.



About fourteen hours after the moment of closest approach the second milestone of the day, of more than symbolic value, was to take place. The 'phone home' signal would tell the world that New Horizons survived the passage through the Pluto system and had functioned normally when out of touch. It would be the breathless messenger handing the battle report to a waiting Napoleon. The people gathered at the two main centers for this big 'moment of truth' taking place at 8:52 Eastern Time.

The control room appeared on the monitors showing Mission Operations Manager (MOM) Alice Bowman attentively listening to her head set and announcing:

"OK we are in lock with carrier(subdued claps) stand by for telemetry In lock on symbols...OK copy that we are in lock with telemetry with the spacecraft"

. A chorus of relieved clapping rose in intensity across Mission Control and the celebration rolled across the crowds gathered across APL. Tension was forgotten as the spacecraft was seen to be working. Further announcements reinforced the good news. Alice the 'MOM' then said:

"Subsystems please report your status as you get though data" then other voices chimed in, to be briefly acknowledged: "MOM this is RF on Pluto One" "Go ahead RF"

"RF is reporting nominal carrier power, nominal signal to noise ratio for the telemetry RF nominal"

. "Copy that RF nominal" "MOM this is Autonomy on Pluto One,"

"Go ahead Autonomy"

"Autonomy is very happy to to report nominal status, no rules have fired'(Eruption of applause from people in the know)


"Go ahead CVH"

"Uh, CVH reports nominal status, our SSR pointers are where we expect them to be which means we recorded the expected amount of data"

"Copy that, looks like we have a good data report!" (more sustained clapping in the control room)

"MOM this GNC on Pluto One"

"Go ahead GNC"

"GNC is nominal and all hardware is healthy and we have a good number of thruster counts"

"Copy that GNC is healthy"

Now we knew the many carefully choreographed movements happened and the expected data was obtained. More subsystems teams continued to confirm a perfect performance. Finally Bowman concluded with a summary to Principal Investigator (PI) Alan Stern:

"PI, MOM on Pluto OneWe have a healthy spacecraft, we've recorded data at the Pluto System, and we're outbound from Pluto." Then sustained clapping resumed everywhere.

Alan appeared and hugged Alice, then raised and waved a flag. This was the culmination of a quarter century of his and others determined quest. A sustained standing ovation went on and on, everyone reassured now the treasure trove of data would be forthcoming in the many months ahead. The Big Auditorium again filled, and after a prolonged celebratory settling down process a formal program resumed, with the audience again breaking into applause as the announcer prompted us to welcome the New Horizons team. They bounded down the stairs near me. Alan Stern happily waved a flag and many black shirted team members greeted and 'high five-ed people they knew on the way down. The team gathered on one side of the stage apart from the podium where among others APL Director Ralph D. Semmel appeared, and spoke of how this mission 'demonstrates what the world can achieve when we work together in a collective manner'.





















NASA Administrator Charles Bolden then prompted one more standing ovation for the occasion, during which many gave the 'Nine Planets!' sign. After the celebration people again dispersed and circulated though out the area, talking of what was being revealed and taking a last opportunity to converse with colleagues and old friends. I started to seek out a few more people I had heard were there that I knew, found some and not others.

Then the toll of the long day began to be felt, I said a few goodbyes and made it back to my hotel in time for a late meal. The next day at the airport a TV with CNN showed a new image release of Pluto's rough landscape disappearing into the cold night. Back Home On the night flight over Southern California the cabin was dark and I could see the desert towns below glowing through a veil of clouds, resembling pale Christmas lights covered in cotton and spun glass. The Milky Way brightly extended vertically from the Southern horizon with the stars near it gleaming like gems. Just to the left of the Milky Way, in front of the faraway stars of the constellation Sagittarius, New Horizons was speeding past Pluto, relatively near at three billion miles away. Its next target, an icy flying mountain, will be decided this August among two candidates. But this will be a but a postscript to this epic encounter.

We experienced a great event that will be long remembered in the history of exploration, along with many others who made the pilgrimage to be there. Once more I got to be at the most important spot on the planet at that moment, and where a significant fraction knew who I was and treated me as a colleague and friend. The paths we all took in our lives to end up there could be celebrated together. It was where we could all share the camaraderie of being in the grandstands of history.

Don Davis

July 18, 2015




Right: Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of the New Horizons mission the day Pluto was revealed.