Book Review: Mission to Pluto
Reviewed by: Marianne Dyson
Title: Mission to Pluto: The First Visit to an Ice Dwarf and the Kuiper Belt
Author: Mary Kay Carson
Photos: Tom Uhlman
Ages: 10 to 12 (and up)
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Date: January 2017
Retail Price: $18.99/$9.99
When the New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, it didn’t just send back photos and data: it opened a new chapter in the story of the Solar System.
Author Mary Kay Carson and photographer Tom Uhlman teamed up to capture and record the historic flyby as well as share the stories of the scientists and engineers who, starting with Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, had their perseverance rewarded with the discoveries of a lifetime.
Mission to Pluto is a sort of group biography, including profiles of the mission team/family members and the dwarf planet itself. The book opens with the flyby of Pluto in 2015. The team leaders and guests, including Clyde Tombaugh’s daughter and son, now in their 70s, are introduced reacting to the excitement. The mission principal investigator Alan Stern, and the mission operations manager (MOM) Alice Bowman, celebrate like proud parents at their child’s graduation.
Plutonian Dreams, chapter 2, goes back to the “birth” of Pluto: its discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. Each chapter includes “Mission Briefs” that provide useful details and background information. The first Mission Brief provides a diagram of Pluto’s orbit and how its primary moon, Charon, and Pluto revolve around the center of mass of the two bodies, plus very readable summaries of planet facts.
Chapter 3 is the story of the development of the New Horizons spacecraft. Sidebars explain how the spacecraft and its instruments, such as Ralph and Alice, got their names and how they work. More “family members” are introduced, including lead engineer Chris Hersman and planetary scientist Fran Bagenal, who attended the launch in 2006.
In chapter 4, Sprinting Across the Solar System, the story resumes about nine years later during the months before the flyby. We are reminded that Pluto was downgraded from planet to dwarf planet while the spacecraft was “hibernating” on its 3-billion-mile journey. We are introduced to new team member, Mark Showalter, who shares the story of how he discovered Pluto’s small moons Kereberos in 2011, and Styx in 2012. (Hydra and Nix were spotted by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2005.)
Chapter 5 resumes the flyby and is jammed with stunning photos and maps of Pluto and Charon, plus a sidebar about the naming of features after science fiction characters like Vader Crater.
Mission to Pluto concludes with a look at the extended mission and the planned flyby (in early 2019) of Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69, found by planetary astronomer John Spencer. A glossary, bibliography, and index fill the final pages.This book is simply outstanding. I highly recommend it to anyone, regardless of age, who is interested in a story of discovery that has a very happy ending. The New Horizons mission to Pluto is a historic example of what people can do when they join together as a team to reach out and discover new worlds.
© 2017 Marianne Dyson