I count myself as a lucky man for many reasons, in part because my job as a photojournalist gives me the opportunity to experience once-in-a-lifetime events — several of them in the last 14+ years.
This past Tuesday in the early morning hours, I rolled into the parking lot of John’s Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, home of the New Horizons space probe team. The day was to be the day we finally got a good clear look at the planet we call Pluto. The New Horizons craft had been traveling for the last nine years at speeds reaching and exceeding 45,000 miles per hour as it journeyed toward the edge of the solar system.
It was a trip that took so long that it saw the planet the mission was sent to explore demoted to dwarf planet status. On a flag-waving note, the United States is the only country in the world to have sent a probe to visit every planet in the solar system.
To set the stage, the large hall was packed — it was like New Years for nerds. The crowd of more than 200 consisted of scientists and engineers, families and coworkers — even Bill Nye himself — all ready to celebrate the culmination of more than a decade of work and waiting.
As the time to reach Pluto ticked down into mere hours and then minutes, I got the chance to talk with Annette Tombaugh, the daughter of the man who discovered it. She told me his story; he was a farmer who made his own telescope and asked the local observatory to take a look at it to see if it was any good. The observatory thought it was so good they offered him a job. He began scanning the sky as a professional with no formal training and came across a strange star, one that looked like it moved. Less then a year after he was hired he officially discovered Pluto.
We all hushed as the clock counting down New Horizons’ closest approach to the Pluto reached 20 seconds, and then at nine (because Pluto is the ninth planet) everyone began to count down. When the clock hit zero the audience erupted in cheers and applause with hugs and high fives circulated around the room to celebrate a job well done.
We don’t hide the fact that we’re a little spacey here at No Kids, so when I say this was one greatest events I’ve witnessed you have to understand our level of nerd-dom. We have a Pluto throw pillow bearing the year of its discovery (1930) and its demotion (2006).
Still, no matter what your personal level of nerdery, this was and is a big deal. We as a species have a duty and a drive to discover, whether that is here on Earth as we look at other cultures or up in space where we look at the stars.