36 Years from Jupiter to Pluto

Almost exactly 36 years ago, Voyager 2 made its closest approach to Jupiter. I was 7 years old, and the recent acquisition of a telescope that allowed me to see the moon, and other planets up close thrilled me. I spent what seemed like days clipping photos of Jupiter out of the local newspaper and pasting them into a scrapbook that my mom had prepared for me. I had only the barest sense of the achievement at hand–that a robotic probe had been sent millions of miles into space and was now sending back pictures of what I already knew to be the largest planet in the solar system.

The telescope, Voyager 2, and a book I encountered in the public library called The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley, served as the fuel, flint, and steel that stoked my lifelong interest in astronomy, and science in general.

Thirty-six years later, New Horizons is rapidly approaching Pluto–which was a planet when I was seven, but has since been demoted. In a few days, it will pass within 7,000 miles of the planet. I am no longer clipping photos from the newspaper (although I read with relish the piece in today’s Washington Post). Instead, in keeping up with the times, I am following along with events the way all the cool kids do it today, namely, on Twitter:

Reading the article, and following along with the excitement on Twitter, I can help but be amazed by the achievements we’ve made in science and engineering. A decade ago, we rocketed a robot into space, and based on Newton’s laws of motion, shot it at point in space that would intersect with where Pluto would be nearly 10 years later. Now, we are getting high resolution images from just a few million miles away from the planet, with more to come as New Horizons approaches ever closer.

Looking at the pictures, and reading the excited tweets of astronomers and engineers, and friends, and fellow science fiction writers, I’ve been trying to think of a way to describe the feelings it has generated within me. All I can come up with is this:

I feel just like that 7-year old, 36 years in the past, who eagerly awaited each day’s newspaper hoping for new images of planet unimaginably distant, and yet appearing close enough to touch.