As the principal investigator on NASA’s New Horizons mission, UT alumnus Alan Stern (B.S. Physics 1978, B.A. Astronomy 1981, M.S. ASE 1980, M.S. CE 1981) led a team of more than 2,500 scientists and engineers in a history-making effort to explore the Pluto system and the Kuiper Belt.
New Horizons left Earth on January 19, 2006, as the fastest spacecraft ever launched, and, after a nine-year, three-billion-mile journey through the solar system, the mission completed its flyby exploration of Pluto on July 14, 2015, providing us with our first-ever close-up glimpses of the dwarf planet Pluto and its five surrounding moons. Encouraged by the mission’s success thus far, the New Horizons team obtained a mission extension through 2021, allowing them to explore even farther into the Kuiper Belt. For his role in New Horizons and other career accomplishments, Stern was named to the Time 100 list in both 2007 and 2016. We sat down with him to discuss the mission to Pluto and learn more about what the near future holds for commercial space travel to destinations closer to home.
After all the work that you and your team put into New Horizons, what was it like to watch the spacecraft complete its mission?
These flyby events are very intense, working around the clock. We’re getting new data every day at that point, and there is a need for quick turnaround for data analysis. Add to that the public and press events taking place, and it all makes for very long days during these flybys. I’m not exaggerating when I say that, during the week surrounding the most recent flyby, I was getting at best four hours of sleep a night. That’s how busy we were.
Missions like New Horizons are reigniting the public’s fascination with space exploration. What are some of the benefits of having a thriving space program?
One is soft power projection. Kids all around the world read about the exploration of the planets in their science classes, and that’s essentially an American brand because it’s been led by the United States since the 1960s. It’s a tremendous way to define our image as a nation, to emphatically state what kind of nation we are — that we are an economic powerhouse, yes, and also a scientific and technical powerhouse. And we are a nation of explorers. Moreover — and I think this is the greatest benefit of space exploration — I’ve found that space, more than anything else, first turns kids on to STEM education. When I was growing up, most of the kids I grew up with wanted to be in the space program. Most of them didn’t end up there. Instead, they went out and developed computers, advanced the Internet revolution, etc. The same thing is taking place today. Space exploration turns kids on to STEM, and that ultimately fuels our entire tech economy.
Over the next 20 years, what do you see as the most exciting thing that could happen in terms of our understanding of space?
We are progressing quite rapidly with the advent of commercial spaceflight — from spaceflight having been rare to spaceflight becoming routine. And I think the 2020s — I like to call them the “Roaring Twenties”— are going to be transformational. We’re going to see space tourism blossom. We’re going to see humans back on the Moon, off to Mars, and then, probably within the next 20 years, to other destinations as well. And you’ll see non-governmental entities doing this in many cases. We tend to think of space as something that is largely governmental because, when it started, it took giant government agencies like NASA to pull off spaceflight. But now individual companies can do it, and we have literally 100 or more such companies in the United States that either commercially build satellites or launch vehicles or the systems that go in them. We’re seeing a new space race blossom — this time in the private sector.
This is a very different environment that new graduates are entering into, compared to when you began your career. What advice would you give to students and young alumni today who are hoping to have a long term career in space? What should they be doing now? How should they be preparing?
I would encourage them to figure out what discipline in engineering they like best and pursue that, whether it’s electrical or aerospace or mechanical or something else. Because all of them are needed by space companies and by NASA. They have all the branches of engineering working for them, so my best advice to aspiring space workers, particularly engineers, is to find what you love in engineering and follow your heart. Your skills will be valuable in the space economy, but, more importantly, when you do something you love, you’re going to excel at it.
Often, when people get to do their dream job, they discover that the stress of the job can make it difficult to remember why they fell in love with it in the first place. Are you as passionate about space now as you were the day you began your studies at UT? How has that passion evolved over time?
I’m absolutely just as passionate about it as I was when I began. I’m now far enough along in my career that people who are just a few years ahead of me are starting to think about retirement. But I’m not — I love it! It’s just getting more interesting, and, if anything, my passion for it has grown thanks to being able to do some larger-than-life things. Getting to lead the 2,500 people involved in New Horizons to execute the farthest exploration in history? That is not something I thought I would ever get to do. I look forward to the next phase, when I hope to go to space many times myself as a researcher.
So, you will be first in line when the opportunity arises to actually fly into space?
Oh, absolutely. My firm, the Southwest Research Institute, based in San Antonio, has a project that I run that plans to do research using commercial suborbital vehicles, and we’ve already purchased three space flights from Virgin Galactic to fly our people to space to do research. We plan to purchase even more flights from other companies, and they’re probably going to inaugurate commercial service later this year. As the project leader, I expect to be flying quite a bit over the next decade or two.
This concept of space travel that has, for so long, been the basis of science fiction movies and novels is now becoming part of our everyday life. Do you find that it’s hard for people to fathom that this will become routine?
You know, space isn’t that far away! [Laughs] The boundary with space is about as far away from you in Austin as Temple, Texas, is. And yet it’s been largely inaccessible to us. Until now. The societal consciousness is funny — if you ask people what life will be like on some distant date, say 100 years from now, you will hear them talk about spaceflight being routine by then. But for so long, since the beginning of spaceflight in the 1950s, it’s just been inaccessible unless you were a government astronaut. So, it’s not that people didn’t think it would happen, they just felt certain that it wouldn’t happen in their lifetimes. And that’s what is changing. It’s happening as we speak, this year or next year. If you’re reading this, commercial space travel is going to happen before you know it.