ALPERN AT LARGE-Well, we did it.
More to the point, the NASA technicians who pulled off the amazing fly-by of the New Horizons spacecraft by Pluto did it. Of course, the rest of us Americans paid for this, and by and large most Americans really wanted this. We wanted this very much. Americans still remain pioneers and explorers at heart. So we got a spacecraft to fly over 3.6 billion miles to cruise 7,700 miles over the surface of Pluto.
And there are surprises: ice mountains and water, to be specific. In addition, there are no impact craters, suggesting that Pluto is very young. Pluto's largest moon, Charon, has a youthful terrain and a dark area nicknamed "Mordor". There are four other small moons: Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra.
Not bad for a world that was recently demoted to a dwarf planet. And was that demotion really necessary?
In other words, despite the challenges we face here at home (and our own personal reticence about funding these kind of missions), this effort was launched in 2006 during a different political era and during a different economic era.
NASA got the New Horizons spacecraft to perform a very close fly-by around Jupiter in order to both observe that planet and to assist with the spacecraft being propelled to Pluto via a slingshot effect, prior to the spacecraft being sent into hibernation during its long interplanetary travels.
And with the New Horizons spacecraft out of hibernation, it's achieving its main function: to perform the first close study of a planet (dwarf or otherwise), and the first close study of the last remaining planet to have a close fly-by since Neptune was first studied in 1989 by the Voyager 2 spacecraft.
I remember the first Neptune study well: I was an intern at the Medical College of Virginia, recently graduated from medical school from Galveston, Texas--and it was as thrilling for me as this Pluto fly-by is for me now.
Back then I had no wife or children, and no idea of where I would establish my medical practice.
Good things happen to those who wait, who plan, and who stay focused.
I am a happy husband and father, and NASA can now say they didn't lose focus of Pluto despite the shortcomings of the space shuttle and space station programs.
Who knows what lies in wait for any of us, for NASA, and for our nation or world that now watches in amazement as this incredible engineering feat now bears fruit and shines light on this distant world?
After all, Pluto is often referenced but has never really been seen up close.
But good things come to those who wait, and who study, and who work hard, and who never give up.
And for those who never are too afraid or daring to ask: what's next?
(Ken Alpern is a Westside Village Zone Director and Board member of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Co-Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee. He is co-chair of the CD11Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at Alpern@MarVista.org He also does regular commentary on the Mark Isler Radio Show on AM 870, and co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at www.fogl.us. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.)
Vol 13 Issue 58
Pub: Jul 17, 2015