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Pushing Toward New Horizons
Jan. 19, 2006. It's a clear afternoon in central Florida, where an Atlas V rocket puffs chilled mist into the air at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Pad 41. In the Atlas Space Operations Center four miles away, NASA Launch Manager Omar Baez polls the launch team to ensure everyone is ready to release the last built-in hold in the countdown.

NASA Mission Integration Manager Mike Stelzer
An interview with Mike Stelzer
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"NASA MIM," calls Baez as he moves down the list.

NASA Mission Integration Manager Mike Stelzer punches a button on his console. "NASA MIM is go," he responds.

About five years have passed since Stelzer began the challenging task of heading up the effort to bring the New Horizons spacecraft and the Atlas V vehicle to this point. Now, with the countdown clock approaching T-0, it's time for the spacecraft to head for faraway and mysterious Pluto -- the only planet in our solar system that hasn't been observed up close.

Planning the Mission

New Horizons became the fastest spacecraft ever launched, racing away from Earth at more than 36,000 miles per hour. The spacecraft will reach its target in July 2015, spending five months conducting the first in-depth study of Pluto and its moons, then continuing on to another Kuiper Belt object. Onboard the piano-sized probe are seven science instruments that will reveal the surface properties, geology, interior makeup and atmospheres of these planetary bodies.

Artist's rendering of New Horizons with Pluto and CharonImage to right: This artist's concept of the New Horizons spacecraft during its planned encounter with Pluto and its moon, Charon.
Image credit: JHUAPL/ SWRI

Like other missions, New Horizons had several major challenges. The toughest among them was pulling the mission together a tight timeline for a launch in January 2006, to take advantage of a flyby of Jupiter in 2007 that shaves up to five years off the trip to Pluto.

As the NASA MIM for New Horizons, Stelzer's job was to ensure a successful launch by coordinating the activities of the mission integration team. Participants included the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which built the spacecraft; Lockheed Martin Corp., which supplied the Atlas V launch vehicle; The Boeing Company, which provided the third stage; and the U.S. Department of Energy, which supplied the radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), the spacecraft's long-term power source.

It's not easy to define a "typical day" for Stelzer, one of several mission integration managers working for NASA's Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In the early stages of mission planning, he had to learn each participant's needs and help answer a host of questions: What were the mission's goals? When did it have to launch in order to arrive at Pluto? What type of launch vehicle could best handle the mass of everything onboard -- and hurl a spacecraft on a path to the most distant planet from our sun?

"In the beginning, there was no hardware to see," Stelzer explains. "It was all conceptual and involved a lot of visualization."

As the mission began taking shape, planners methodically resolved development and design issues. Engineers built and tested hardware, and if parts didn't fit or operate as expected, the problems were solved through reviews, redesigns and more testing. It's a lengthy process that takes years, but everyone involved knows these steps are critical to a successful mission.

Finally, mission planning moved into the last stage: the launch campaign.

Go for Launch

Liftoff of the Atlas V carrying NASA's New Horizons spacecraftThe team's excitement grew as the various launch components began to come together at the launch site. In late 2005, the Atlas V rocket was shipped in pieces from Colorado to Cape Canaveral, and the New Horizons spacecraft arrived from Maryland. A simulated RTG was sent by the Department of Energy for fit checks and testing; the real RTG arrived in November 2005 and was installed only a few days before launch.

"I remember going out to the launch pad with Alan Stern, the principal investigator, to see the configuration before closeout," Stelzer recalls. "Alan had been pushing the mission to Pluto for decades, and this was a chance for him to take one last peek before we launched his vision."

Image to right: An Atlas V rocket carrying the New Horizons spacecraft roars off Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Pad 41 on January 19, 2006. Launching at this time allows New Horizons to fly past Jupiter in early 2007 and use the planet’s gravity as a slingshot toward Pluto. Image credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Thanks to the expert knowledge and tireless work of people like Stelzer, New Horizons is now sailing through space on a mission of several "firsts." To name a few examples, it's the first Atlas V launch of a spacecraft with an RTG, the first flight of an Atlas V with a third stage, and the first mission to an unexplored planet since the launch of Voyager in 1977.

Today, New Horizons is headed toward its destiny: a rendezvous with Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, to teach us more about how planets form and to seek exciting details about this unexplored region of our solar system.

For more information on New Horizons, visit:
+ New Horizons on the NASA Web Portal
+ Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory
Anna Heiney
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center