Behind-The Scenes of the New Horizons Pluto Flyby

How Thinking like a Kindergartener Landed me at Johns-Hopkins

After my sophomore year of college, I became infected with a passionate curiosity and optimism. Although I had always loved learning, this curiosity reached new heights, and I began jumping into adventures like a child splashing in rain puddles. I asked journalists to lunch and called magazine writers for advice. I took on new leadership roles and applied for new jobs. Most people would call this "networking" or "professional development", but I called it "exploring and making friends". Like a five-year-old on her first day of kindergarten, I found a new delight in talking to others about their lives and passions and discovering what they could teach me about the world.

Somehow, a year later, that attitude put me front-and-center for a historic day in space history: humanity's first visit to Pluto. Trust me: I'm not entirely sure how it happened, either.

As an aspiring science journalist, I made it a goal to learn from and befriend the plethora of science writers in Washington, DC this summer. While talking with one such journalist, she mentioned that she would be speaking on a panel at the Johns-Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory on July 14th for the New Horizons Pluto flyby. "I am not sure if it is open to the public," she said, "but I'm sure you could give someone a call."

As it turned out, the event was nowhere near open to the public. In fact, almost all of the big names on the New Horizons mission were going to be there, from the Principal Investigator to the Mission Operations Manager. Being at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) on July 14th was going to be like being at NASA Mission Control on July 20, 1969, the day man first walked on the moon.

I was disappointed but not deterred. Several days later, I stumbled upon a quiet page on the NASA website: They were accepting applications for media badges for the New Horizons flyby. Although expecting no response, I shrugged and optimistically sent in my name.

Three weeks later, I found myself walking into Johns-Hopkins with a media badge clipped to my dress. My application had been approved. Somehow, I found myself in the middle of history.

At some point after graduating from childhood, most of us fall prey to self-doubt and lose the hopeful innocence and curiosity of a kindergartener. Instead of asking questions and chasing daydreams, we settle for answers like "I don't know" and "That could never happen."

At nineteen years old, I learned how to think like a kindergartener again, and it has altered the events of my life. Despite growing up watching astronomy documentaries and discussing them with anyone in earshot, I entered college and majored in neuroscience. "Become a doctor," my doubt told me, "because being a writer is unrealistic." I forgot about my love for space and communicating science until I shrugged off the voice of doubt and listened to the one of child-like hope. Experiencing the New Horizons flyby with the scientists who created it was more than just experiencing history firsthand: It was an affirmation that, with my camera in one hand and a notebook in the other, I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I had chosen to trust in the child-like voice of hope, the one that encouraged me to ask questions, to take risks, and to embrace curiosity, and hope had not led me astray.

Above, you can find my video blog from my day at Johns-Hopkins APL. There, I witnessed and celebrated history with NASA scientists, amazing engineers, and hundreds of brilliant, talented, and inquisitive writers. I chose to use my time there to showcase the hard-working journalists who will bring you the news of Pluto over the next year. After all, science is beautiful and challenging and the closet thing we have to magic, and the people who tell us about it are worth celebrating.

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About the Author

Alexis Stempien
SSEC Science Writing Intern, Summer 2015

Alexis specializes in writing, video, and social media. A senior at the University of Michigan, she studies Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience with a Minor in Writing. Outside of the classroom, she enjoys producing videos for her YouTube channel These Neon Hearts, playing mellophone in the Michigan Marching Band, and enthusiastically explaining science news to everyone around her.