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At Work on NASA's Pluto Mission


After two days of weather delays that kept planetary scientists on the edge of their seats, the New Horizon spacecraft lifted off this week.

(Soundbite from NASA)

Unidentified Man #1: Five, four, three, two, one.

(Soundbite of rocket engines)

Unidentified Man #1: We have ignition and liftoff of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on a decade-long voyage to visit the planet Pluto and then beyond.

YDSTIE: The spacecraft will be the first to study the planet Pluto. It'll take nine-and-a-half years to get there and before any data comes back from the planet.

Two of the scientists who worked on the mission are a brother and sister team. Leslie and Elliot Young are scientists at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, which designed the mission.

Elliot joins us from Boulder. Welcome.

Mr. ELIOT Y. YOUNG (Research Scientist, Southwest Research Institute): Thank you for having us.

YDSTIE: And Leslie is in Cocoa Beach, Florida, near the Kennedy Space Center. Thanks for being with us, Leslie.

Ms. LESLIE A. YOUNG (Research Scientist, Southwest Research Institute): It's a pleasure to be here.

YDSTIE: First of all, congratulations to both of you.

Leslie, this must have been a long time coming.

Ms. YOUNG: It was. Some of us on the team have been observing Pluto for 30 years. I'm one of the youngsters observing Pluto for only 17. We've been building this spacecraft for five years, and to see it go up after only two days of delay is a thrill.

YDSTIE: Hmm. Two days in this project is a, the blink of an eye.

Ms. YOUNG: That's right.

YDSTIE: So, what were each of your roles.

Eliot, tell us about what you do.

Mr. YOUNG: I've been observing Pluto a little bit longer than Leslie. I'm only three years older, so about 20 years. I've just been trying to get at what it looks like and what its made out of, what its atmosphere is like any possible way you can; any way you can get clues.

YDSTIE: Leslie, what's your specialty?

Ms. YOUNG: My specialty is the atmosphere of Pluto. I was on the team that discovered the atmosphere around Pluto in 1988. But my role on the mission is that of deputy project scientist. That's an overarching role where basically I try to make sure that the engineers and the scientists understand each other, so that we end up with a spacecraft that when it gets to Pluto will deliver the science goals that we are all waiting for.

YDSTIE: How did the two of you come to both study Pluto? I mean, what was it that brought you there? This is, it must be highly unusual.

Ms. YOUNG: Blatant nepotism.

YDSTIE: (Laughing)

Mr. YOUNG: Maybe I should tell the story. Leslie had just graduated from her undergraduate. She was unemployed and talking with me in my office late one night, and my adviser was in the hallway, overheard her and offered her job, which seems to have gone okay.

YDSTIE: I think many people would question the value of spending $700 million on sending this spacecraft to Pluto. Aside from your own personal investment in studying Pluto, what would you tell those people who ask that question?

Ms. YOUNG: Well, $700 million, first of all, is spread out over 10 years. And second of all, when you compare it to the budget of the United States, it's a very small amount. If you go out in 2015 and you buy a copy of "Newsweek" because it has a picture of Pluto on the cover, you will have spent more on the issue of "Newsweek" than you will have spent on the mission.

YDSTIE: What you're, oh. So, what you're saying is that in 2015, the amount of money that each taxpayer would have paid out of their pocket for this mission, will be less than what they'd spend for the magazine to look at the results.

Ms. YOUNG: Exactly right.

YDSTIE: That sounds like either that's a great deal, or "Newsweek" is going to be very expensive. Any, any thoughts on that, Eliot?

Mr. YOUNG: it's nice to think of Pluto as a connection to the early solar nebulae. In other words, one of the questions that we'll always get when we're traveling and sitting next to somebody on the airplane is about origins. Where do we come from?

And Pluto was one of the best observable objects that's still a pretty pristine reservoir of the early solar nebulae. Things we find on Pluto probably tell us how our solar system was created, and how different molecules we find on comets survive.

That's a transcendent question that everybody is interested in -- where we come from and how things evolved. And I think Pluto is one of the best labs to look at to address that question.

YDSTIE: Well, thanks to both of you for speaking with us.

Ms. YOUNG: You're very welcome.

Mr. YOUNG: Our pleasure, thanks very much.

YDSTIE: Leslie and Eliot Young, brother and sister. They worked on the New Horizons mission to Pluto. It will be nine and a half years before we hear anything back from the planet.

Will you guys come over then and do an interview with us?

Ms. YOUNG: We would love to.

Mr. YOUNG: Count on it.

YDSTIE: All right, we'll be looking forward to it.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.