A Successful Advocacy Effort to Send a Mission to Pluto
Dan Durda, SwRI
New Horizons at Pluto, July 2015
Artist's concept of New Horizons as it reaches Pluto.
New Horizons is a probe that will fly by Pluto, the last remaining planet in the Solar System to be explored by humanity. It is a successor to a long line of planned Pluto missions, none of which ever left the drawing board. The Planetary Society and its members worked for years to make this mission a reality.
New Horizons' immediate predecessor, the Pluto Express, got farther than most, but in the summer of 2000 NASA canceled mission. In response, The Planetary Society delivered over 10,000 letters addressed to senators and house representatives on Capitol Hill, demonstrating the public support for the mission. Subsequently, NASA continued the mission development, and selected New Horizons from among several competing proposals.
The Bush Administration cancelled it twice, NASA claimed its budget couldn't cover it and Congress earmarked funds to be cut in mid-development; yet the trail-blazing New Horizons Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission has survived. This is no doubt due in part to the relentless public campaigning led by The Planetary Society.
But in 2001, the Pluto mission was again missing from NASA's budget for the following year. The Planetary Society again urged its supporters to write letters to their local representatives as well as to the Senate. Society Executive Director, Louis Friedman and then President, Bruce Murray, also testified to Congress and a public meeting was held in Washington DC where a variety of panelists forcefully argued the case for a Pluto Mission.
Partly in response to the Society's public campaign, Congress changed course and earmarked $25 million for the Pluto mission, but only a a few months later, the Administration again postponed it indefinitely. In response, The Planetary Society once more called on its friends and supporters to make their voices heard on Capitol Hill. In turn, the Senate approved increasing the NASA budget to accommodate New Horizons However, as the full Congress had not yet approved the extra funds, The Planetary Society organized a petition in support of New Horizons, which is signed by 10,000 people on presentation to Capitol Hill. An omnibus spending bill of $110M for New Horizons as part of NASA's budget in fiscal year 2003 with an additional $130M for 2004 is passed.
Extraordinarily, a year later, The House Appropriations Committee cut $55 million from the New Frontiers program of which New Horizons is part. This would have delayed the New Horizons launch by least a year, and its arrival at Pluto by several years. The Planetary Society once more urged its members to write to Congressional leaders on the U.S. Senate's Appropriations Committee, which had to agree with the cuts. In an impressive example of the power of the people, the U.S. Senate's Appropriations Committee approved full funding of New Horizons in the NASA budget for fiscal year 2004.
Launch of New Horizons atop an Atlas V rocket, January 19th, 2006.
On September 23, 2005, the fully operational New Horizons spacecraft was flown on board a C-17 cargo jet to its final Earthly destination - the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. On January 19th, 2006, New Horizons roared into space on board an Atlas V rocket. Nine years later it will encounter Pluto, a place where no human spacecraft has gone before.
Were it not for the efforts of The Planetary Society, its members and its supporters, it is quite likely that this mission would still be a beautiful dream, and that Pluto and its icy moons would continue to remain a mystery for decades to come.