The lawnmower telescope is my favorite Clyde Tombaugh telescope, built so he could move it around the backyard. Dr. Tombaugh was raised on a farm like many of the students he taught. Students scientists have pickups and tool boxes. They build instruments, they design housing for experiments, they invent, experiment and test their instruments. Ellington Field near Houston is where astronauts and NASA researchers flight test experiments.
Through New Mexico Space Grant, I have funded over a hundred students to travel with their experiments to Ellington Field. I proudly observed one of our students helping a team from Brown University with their experiment. It’s the tool box on the pickup that saved more than one team from going home without flying. Our students were going through a test readiness review of their experiment flying on the Zero G plane. It is the plane that was used to film the scenes in Apollo 13 where the astronauts were floating in the cabin.
The flight readiness review is the last step before flight. NASA brings a team of engineers and scientists, to review each experiment before it flies. The teams ask students to demonstrate how their experiments work, and they determine if the experiments are safe to put on the plane. Once the plane goes into the steep dive to simulate microgravity, the students and their experiments experience 25 seconds of low gravitational pull. The equipment can float to the top of the plane if it is not secured within the test stand. Our students consistently passed these reviews. They know how to build hardware. Other team experiments needed work, and more often than not, our farm raised scientists helped solve problems. We have never been sent home in the over 20 campaigns without flying.
This and other activities have prepared our students to work on experiments that now go to space. I know Dr. Tombaugh would be proud of our accomplishments. Yet, I wonder how he would have engaged in the discussion about the new classification of Pluto as a Dwarf Planet. Dr. Tombaugh was a fierce debater, a champion for science, for students, for curiosity, and for fairness.
The new Hayden Planetarium’s director, Neil deGrasse Tyson and I had a few discussions about the re-classification of Pluto. The first was on a lecture trip to the Planetarium in 2009 with some NASA colleagues. I had the flu and was not is the best shape. But, I wanted to hear the lecture.
After being seated in the planetarium’s newly designed Rose Center lecture hall, lights were dimmed, and the solar system came into focus. Quickly, we were on a journey out from the Sun, racing through the Asteroid belt, past Jupiter, beyond Neptune and the Kuiper belt to Pluto. Within 3 sentences, Dr. Tyson told us there were more interesting classification problems to investigate and Pluto was only one of the changes the astronomical community would face as new instruments provided better views of planetary systems. I lost interest. Maybe it was the flu, the flyby out beyond our solar system, or maybe I was just too sad to listen. I soon realized I had to talk to Dr. Tyson.
After the lecture, I waited in the line for my turn to talk to Dr. Tyson. I told him I was from New Mexico State University. We discussed Dr. Tombaugh’s life, his body of work and all that Dr. Tombaugh had done to invigorate an interest in astronomy. He promised to always demonstrate respect for the discovery and the work it took for a young man to make the discovery he did. He said he knew Patsy, and we have stayed friends. Dr. Tyson continues to discuss the great interest Pluto generated around the world. If you are a fan of Pluto, please consider reading his book the Pluto Diaries: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet.
NASA has sent probes to all of the planets, the last probe, the New Horizon’s spacecraft left earth in 2006. It will travel three billion miles before it reaches Pluto and one of it’s orbiting moons, Charon. The Pluto System, as it is referred to by Alan Stern, a leading experts on Pluto, will be investigated by seven instruments on the New Horizons probe. Continue to learn more about Pluto and this mission at www.NASA.gov/missions. Dr. Tombaugh was a scientist. I believe he would encourage us to be curious about Pluto, look at what the research data tells us and make up our own minds.