It sounds like science fiction, but it’s not. Overnight tonight, on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, an American spacecraft called New Horizons will fly by and explore the most distant place ever visited: a small world called Ultima Thule.
Twenty-five hundred men and women across the United States worked to design and build New Horizons, its rocket and its nuclear power supply, and to launch it into space and to fly it across the solar system. In 2015, New Horizons became the first spacecraft to explore Pluto. Now on Ultima’s doorstep, it is a mind-boggling four billion miles from Earth.
This spacecraft, this distant sentinel, is an amazing piece of American workmanship, operating essentially flawlessly in space for well over a decade, with no backup ship and with no second chance to visit any world it has explored.
Fifty years ago this week, during the Christmas holidays of 1968, another American spacecraft, Apollo 8, was launched and made the first voyage of humans to another world — our moon. In the half century since, we in the United States went on to send the first humans to walk the moon and to send robots to explore every planet known at the birth of the space age. This week, New Horizons will continue in that legacy of inquisitiveness, soft-power projection and pure scientific exploration.
The legacy of American leadership in space isn’t just for history books. It spurs technological development. It has inspired countless careers in science, technology, mathematics and engineering. It is a big reason we have had visionary space pioneers as diverse as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mae Jemison, Sally Ride and Carl Sagan. And it has created new knowledge that the United States continues to make freely available to anyone and everyone in the world who wishes to learn from it.
As a result of these accomplishments, iconic American names like Apollo, Hubble, Cassini and New Horizons are known throughout the world. These accomplishments have laid a foundation for what may someday be a broadly space-faring human species, representing the first steps in an expansive new phase of human history, beyond our cradle Earth.
Our flyby of Ultima Thule by New Horizons is just around the corner. That exploration will provide an auspicious beginning to 2019, the 50th-anniversary year of Apollo’s first moon landing — perhaps, in the long view, the most important historical event of the 20th century. Ultima Thule is 17,000 times as far away as the “giant leap” of Apollo’s lunar missions. The exploration at Ultima Thule is a fitting way to honor the brash exploration and boldness that was Apollo.
As you celebrate New Year’s Day, cast an eye upward and think for a moment about the amazing things our country and our species can do when we set our minds to it. And picture for a moment that American spacecraft, New Horizons, billions of miles from home, exploring, as Apollo did, for all humankind.
Alan Stern is a planetary scientist who leads NASA’s New Horizons mission and a co-author of Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto.