Alumnus Leads Mission to Unravel Pluto’s Mysteries


Enhanced color global view of Pluto created from four images from New Horizon's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager. Photo credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Astronomers, engineers, scientists and those who dream of space eagerly watched as a NASA spacecraft flew 3 billion miles from Earth near the edges of our solar system. When New Horizons reached its closest approach to Pluto, one Texas Engineering alumnus had particular cause to celebrate the historic accomplishment: Alan Stern, the mission’s leader.

alan stern

Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission to Pluto. Photo credit: NASA

Stern, who holds two bachelor’s and two master’s degrees from UT Austin, is the principal investigator on the New Horizons mission. After nearly 10 years in flight, New Horizons is spending five months studying Pluto and its moons. On Tuesday, July 14, at 6:49 a.m. central time, the spacecraft got as close as it could get to Pluto, some 7,800 miles from the surface.

The New Horizons mission has already helped scientists determine that Pluto is larger than many prior estimates and will ultimately help us understand worlds at the edge of our solar system. Equipped with high-tech cameras, the spacecraft has helped astronomers see Pluto in never-before-seen detail. Images reveal icy mountain ranges as large as the Rockies, flowing ices — much like glaciers on Earth, textured plains and evidence of geological activity in the last 100 million years.

“It says something very deep about humans and our society, something very good about us, that we’ve invested our time and treasure in building a machine that can fly across 3 billion miles of space to explore the Pluto system,” Stern said in an interview with the Smithsonian.

New Horizons flies by Jupiter

Artist rendering of the New Horizons space craft flying past Jupiter on its way to Pluto. Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

As a young child, Stern dreamed of exploring space as an astronaut. After enrolling at UT Austin in 1975, he devoted himself to becoming the ideal candidate for NASA’s astronaut corps. After studying chemistry and physics as an undergraduate, he stayed at the university to pursue master’s degrees in aerospace engineering and planetary atmospheres at the Cockrell School of Engineering. In his limited free time as a student, he earned his pilot’s license, learned to sky dive and trained to be a flight instructor.

Stern first became interested in Pluto during his time as a graduate student at the Cockrell School. In 1978, astronomers discovered Charon, one of Pluto’s five known moons, and saw indications that Pluto might have an atmosphere that could foster seasons. For his master’s thesis, Stern modeled the range of Pluto’s atmospheric possibilities.

After completing his UT Austin degrees in 1981, he moved to the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he earned his doctorate in astrophysics and planetary science.

Still determined to travel to space, Stern applied to become an astronaut three times and came very close to joining a shuttle launch to accompany an instrument he developed to study the composition of comets. Ultimately, he was never selected for a space mission, so he devoted his career to his other passion: exploring Pluto.

Stern began advocating for NASA to send a mission to this mysterious planet more than 25 years ago. He persevered through multiple set backs, including several canceled missions and the demotion of Pluto to “dwarf planet,” which occurred a few weeks after New Horizons was finally launched into space.

Finally, on July 14, together with his family, friends and colleagues, Stern celebrated the success of New Horizons’ Pluto flyby. For months to come, the images and data collected on the spacecraft’s incredible journey will continue to unravel more of Pluto’s mysteries, finally bringing this once obscure planet into the light.

Stern resides in Boulder, where he is an associate vice president for research and development at Southwest Research Institute. In addition to overseeing space missions, he has co-founded multiple companies related to space exploration and travel.

Texas Engineers Advancing Space Exploration

Stern’s mission to Pluto is just one example of how Cockrell School alumni have worked to uncover the mysteries of our solar system.

Michael Baker, B.S. ASE '75
Baker is the International Space Station Program’s manager for international and crew operations at Johnson Space Center. From January 1986 to December 1987 — following the Challenger accident — Baker was a member of the team that redesigned, modified and improved the shuttle landing and deceleration systems. A veteran of four space flights, Baker has spent 40 days in space and logged 5,400 hours flying time in 50 aircraft.

Alan Bean, B.S. ASE '56
Bean was the fourth man and only Longhorn on the moon, and he also helped establish 11 world records in space and astronautics. He has spent 69 days in space, including 10 hours and 26 minutes in Extra Vehicular Activities on the moon and in Earth’s orbit. He has logged 7,145 hours flying time, including 4,890 hours in jet aircraft.

Ken Cockrell, B.S. ME '72
A veteran of five space flights, Cockrell has spent more than 64 days in space. He has logged nearly 9,000 flying hours and completed 650 carrier landings. Currently, Cockrell manages NASA's two WB-57F research airplanes and serves as pilot for research flights. He is also a pilot instructor for astronaut flight training.

Robert Crippen, B.S. ASE '60
Crippen piloted the first orbital test flight of the shuttle Columbia in 1981, the first true manned spaceship. He also piloted the second flight for the orbiter Challenger, the first mission with a five-person crew. Crippen has spent 23 days in space and logged more than 6,500 hours of flying time, including more than 5,500 hours in jet aircraft. He also served as director of the John F. Kennedy Space Center from 1992 to 1995.

Fred Leslie, B.S. EngSci '74
Leslie began working for NASA in 1980 as a research scientist in the Space Science Laboratory at Marshall Space Flight Center. Leslie flew as a payload specialist on a 16-day mission aboard Columbia that was focused on materials science, biotechnology, combustion science and fluid physics contained within the pressurized Spacelab module. He has spent 15 days in space.

Paul Lockhart, M.S. ASE '81
A veteran of two space flights to the International Space Station, Lockhart has logged more than 27 days in space. His first mission in June 2002 was the second Space Shuttle mission dedicated to delivering research equipment to the ISS.

Carl Meade, B.S. EE '73
A veteran of three space flights, Meade has spent 29 days in space. He was recruited by NASA in June 1985, and became an astronaut in July 1986. In 1994, Meade flew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery; the mission highlight occurred when Meade performed the first untethered spacewalk in 10 years. He has logged more than 4,800 hours of jet time in 27 different aircraft.

Andreas Mogensen, Ph.D. ASE ’07
In 2009, the European Space Agency selected Mogensen as the first Danish astronaut. He is currently training to launch to the International Space Station in September.

Karen Nyberg, M.S. ME '96, Ph.D. ME ‘98
Nyberg completed her first spaceflight in 2008 aboard Space Shuttle Discovery's flight to the International Space Station, becoming the 50th woman in space. She also served as flight engineer on Expeditions 36 and 37 to the ISS in 2013 and has logged 180 days in space.

Michael Suffredini, B.S. ASE ’83
As manager of the International Space Station Program at Johnson Space Center, Suffredini is responsible for the development and operation of the 16-nation program. He also leads policy development, international partner negotiations and the overall safety and health of the crew and on-orbit vehicle of the ISS.

Michael Watkins, B.S. ASE ’83, M.S. ASE ’85, Ph.D. ASE ’90
Watkins, who oversaw operations of the Curiosity Rover that landed on Mars in 2012, announced his return to UT Austin this fall as the next director of the Cockrell School’s Center for Space Research. Watkins worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for 22 years and led various teams for many of NASA’s most high-profile missions.

Stephanie Wilson, M.S. ASE '92
A veteran of three space flights, Wilson has logged 42 days in space and was the second African-American woman to travel to space. Aboard her first mission in 2006, the crew produced never-before-seen, high-resolution images of the shuttle during and after its launch.