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Science, persistence, and NASA

I was reading Discover magazine today and found an article about the New Horizons project. Basically, its a robotic exploration craft being sent to Pluto to gather some close-in data on the 9th planet. If you want to see some insider photos of the New Horizons craft and its launch, you can check out this photo library on Flickr.

The science is interesting, but what is more intriguing to me is the story behind the mission. There have been several aborted attempts to get a mission to Pluto under way, but the cost and time scales have always been daunting. The current mission really started in 1989 when an “underground” group of scientists started meeting and working together to keep pushing for the exploration. One scientist in particular, at least according to the article, who remained enthusiastic from the start was Dr. Alan Stern.

I look at things I do every day and how little patience I have. Then I look at the New Horizons project, and Alan Stern, and I am forced to rethink how serious I am about things. Here’s a guy who started working back in 1989 to get a project launched, who more or less gave up three years of his life once the project was approved in 2003 in order to get the craft launched. And he won’t see the results from all this effort until 2015 when, in a mere 24 hours, almost all the science he’s worked towards will either succeed or fail.

Its folks like Alan Stern, and there are thousands like him, who really make science work. The focus, the effort, the dreams…all over periods of years and decades. The knowledge they gain in these efforts is hard for most of us to really understand, and sometimes its tough to see how one individual piece of work can be worth it. Yet without folks like this, the boundaries of science would be far less expansive.

I’ll try to keep the New Horizons project in mind as an example the next time I start feeling disappointed by how little progress something I’m working on seems to be making. Maybe it won’t keep me going back to the piano to practice, or incent me to get back on the exercise bike…but it will remind me that sometimes it takes a real commitment to get the reward.

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