Alan Stern has been busy these last few years.
The engineer, planetary scientist and Eagle Scout is the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission to Pluto, the Kuiper belt and beyond.
In July, he took part in a dive to explore the wreckage of the RMS Titanic, more than 12,000 feet beneath the Atlantic Ocean.
And next year, he’s scheduled to fly to space to conduct a suborbital research mission for NASA.
“Just like the exploration of space I have participated in during my career, our exploration of the Titanic was impactful to me both as a scientist and as a human,” writes Stern in a recent article for The Hill. “Exploration … is something that brings benefits beyond measure. After all, past waves of exploration gave birth to vast economic expansions, to human and societal inspiration beyond measure and even to modern democracy itself.”
If you’re interested in space exploration, deep sea exploration, or, basically, the future of humanity, Stern’s article is a worthwhile read. He notes that the exploration of the oceans and space is poised to dramatically accelerate, thanks to private-sector companies such as Oceangate and Virgin Galactic.
“Exploration of all kinds – from the arctic to the Antarctic, from deep sea to the highest mountains, from our Earth to the Moon and planets – is something uniquely human,” writes Stern. “No other species on Earth explores — exploration is truly a defining trait of our species.”
Stern is one of many Eagle Scouts who worked on the New Horizons mission. That spacecraft produced the best images of Pluto any human has ever seen and eventually paid a visit to Arrokoth, the most distant and most primitive object ever explored by a spacecraft.
Back in 2018, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stern by phone, and he made it pretty clear that his experience in Scouting played a large role in overcoming the challenges that come with space exploration.
“There have been a lot of challenges,” Stern told me. “It has been an issue of persistence. This project has been around-the-clock work for 52 weeks a year for more than 15 years now. And that takes persistence.
“We’ve had lots of problems and we overcame them.”
Stern seemed especially proud of how he and his team handled what sounded to me like a particularly stressful incident back in 2015. Just 10 days away from when New Horizons was scheduled to reach Pluto, the spacecraft went offline.
The ground team back on Earth was sending the probe’s primary computer nine days’ worth of instructions. At the same time, the computer was compressing science data on its recorder.
It was more than the processor could handle and, much like your home computer or smart device might do when it becomes overloaded, it glitched.
Stern and Glen Fountain, an electrical engineer on the New Horizons team and, of course, also an Eagle Scout, were prepared.
Long before New Horizons launched, Stern and Fountain had gone over a list of things that could go wrong.
“We came up with something like 246 different risks with probably 100 of them with explicit contingency activities,” Fountain says. “ ‘If this should happen, this is what we’re going to do.’ ”
Because of all that planning, they knew exactly what to do when they lost contact with the probe on July 4. They knew the computer had likely gone into “safe mode,” which should prompt it to turn an antenna toward Earth and wait for further instructions.
By calculating the probe’s exact location, they knew that in a short time the probe would be available to communicate again if they looked in just the right spot. When the time came, sure enough, New Horizons was ready and awaiting further instructions.
“The spacecraft and all the instruments are operating flawlessly,” Stern said at a news conference a few days later. “We came a long way to explore Pluto, and all indications are that Pluto is not going to let us down.”
It didn’t. As you read this, New Horizons is still soaring through outer space. Scientists expect to be able to keep in touch with it until sometime in the 2030s, when it will likely run out of power.