An Incredible Search

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.

—Carl Sagan


What were you doing in January of 2006? If you are like me you barely remember. I suppose that I was busy working at Revere Middle School. I had been in my new home in Pearland for almost a year by then. I was still spending Friday nights taking my mother to dinner. My grandchildren were all quite young. Mike and I were simply rocking along in our own little world, often tired from the long hours that we spent at our jobs. I had little idea of the life changing events that were in store for us. I certainly paid no attention to a barely mentioned venture at NASA called New Horizons. 

It was one of those low level, low priority missions that barely achieved funding in an organization that seemed to be slowly but surely dying from lack of public interest. The old days of glory at NASA had faded away and in some political circles the once enthusiastic support for its projects had turned to other more exciting frontiers. In the midst of long and disagreeable discussions about the future of space exploration the dream of a group of scientists known as the Pluto Underground finally came to fruition and a clunky probe once describe as a grand piano with a satellite was launched into space. It’s mission was to fly to the far reaches of our solar system and to explore Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. It was launched on January 19, 2006, and has been traveling ever since. This week the images that it sent to its earthly home like postcards have been stunning.

When I was a child there were nine planets and among them was Pluto, perhaps the most mysterious of them all. I remember using a mnemonic rhyme to remember their order from the sun. I took for granted that tiny and faraway Pluto was one of the least interesting of the spheres that orbited around the sun. I cared little about it and instead found far greater fascination with our neighboring planet of Venus, the big red orb known as Mars, Saturn with its delicate rings, and Jupiter with its incredible size. Pluto was more like an afterthought, a tiny place in deep space that inspired the name of Mickey Mouse’s dog. 

Pluto was discovered rather late in our history. It was not until 1930, that Clyde Tombaugh first determined its certain existence. Over time various theories about Pluto evolved including the eventual determination that it was not really a planet all. Those of us who had regarded it as one of the nine when we were children suddenly had to accept the thinking that it no longer deserved to be part of the noble land masses that make up the major elements of the solar system. It was a change that disturbed some of Pluto’s fans and prompted a need to know more about this faraway body.

This week New Horizons flew closer to Pluto than any manmade object has ever before done. it dutifully took the photographs that it had been designed to snap and then sent them through space back to earth. The images have been stunning and in fact have debunked many of the long held theories about Pluto. The clarity of the photos and the realization of the importance of the discoveries has literally brought some of those involved in the longterm project to tears. 

We now know that Pluto has mountains comparable in size to our own Rockies. This leads to the theory that there is water on the planet for it is only water ice that will support such peaks. Where there is water there may be life. The images also show that the surface of Pluto is much smoother than we had believed. It had been theorized that it would be pocked with craters from objects flying into its surface but that is not the case. It is actually rather beautiful and the evidence leads scientists to believe that it is still very young, no more than a hundred million years or so. The photos of one of its moons, Charon, have been stunning and will give rise to studies far into the future.

While we were all busy with the routines of life something quite remarkable was just waiting to be discovered. The ingenuity of mankind has once again humbled us. It is in the incredible miracle of our thinking that our futures are most certainly assured. Mankind grows and evolves and learns in breathtaking ways. Our world is constantly changing and most often for the best. Our natural curiosity and determination are the keys to unlocking the wonders that we have not yet even dreamed of understanding. The world of 1930, when Trumbaugh first discovered Pluto could never have imagined the way that we live today and the knowledge that we have gleaned in less that a hundred years. It makes me wonder what grand things will improve our learning and way of life in the future. 

In a few hours I will enjoy the miracles of modern medicine. A doctor will make two small holes in my knee and explore the painful and injured area with a scope, removing the tissue that is causing my problems. I will be in a sterile environment with machines monitoring my every breath. Within under an hour my knee should be repaired. I will return to my home in the evening and if all goes as expected I will be walking again before the weekend is over. 

There was a time not that long ago when I would have limped in pain for the remainder of my life. Although I am quite healthy in every other way the quality of my existence would have been far more limited than it will ultimately be. Instead I enjoy the fruits of scientific progress like few in the history of mankind. I will live longer and without many of the problems of my ancestors. 

It’s quite popular today to complain that the world is going to hell. I constantly hear individuals moaning about what they don’t have. Projects like New Horizons put our ordinary lives into perspective. We humans are in fact quite an amazing species. I like to think that we may struggle with certain problems for a time but history shows us that we somehow manage to eventually make things right. It is in our natures to be creative in the sciences and in the arts. We strive to make our world more comfortable and in the process we do indeed move ever forward. 

I suppose that in a way, like the scientists who nurtured the New Horizons explorations, I am feeling a bit emotional about what we have learned in the last couple of days. My faith in my fellow man has been bolstered. I sense that we have goals that are bigger than ourselves. My love of space has been revitalized. For at least a time we have a beautiful distraction from the ugliness that has seemingly surrounded us for so long. We are reminded that the human race and our universe is simply incredible!


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