Walking Off the Map of the Known World, Via Pluto

It saddened me greatly to miss Buzz Aldrin's visit to Bismarck last week. I was by then in Montana, retracing a bit of Thomas Jefferson's "Apollo program," my annual cultural tour on the Lewis and Clark trail on the Missouri River's White Cliffs stretch, and then on to the Lolo Trail just inside Idaho, west of Missoula. It's always one of the professional highlights of my year.

I was once briefly mistaken for Buzz Aldrin in Grand Forks, but that is another tale for another time.

Aldrin was the second man on the moon. Almost immediately after he stepped down onto the lunar surface on July 21, 1969, he spontaneously formulated perhaps the best short description ever offered about earth's lone satellite. Aldrin called what he saw "magnificent desolation."

Aldrin has written a number of books about his Apollo Program experience, which can be collectively summarized by the phrase, "When you've been to the moon, what's left?" I call this the Buzz Aldrin Syndrome—peaking early, spending the rest of your life trying to recover the ecstasy or learn to accept normalcy. Olympic athletes sometimes experience this, as well as soldiers who have been in harm's way, and extreme sportsmen. Meriwether Lewis suffered grievously after his return from the wilderness in 1806, when he realized that bestriding the source of the "heretofore deemed endless Missouri River" had been the greatest moment of his life. He was just 32 years old. Not only would he never do anything that extraordinary again, but nobody else would ever discover the source of the Missouri again. The philosopher Nietzsche called this "the melancholy of all things accomplished."

North Dakota's great Eric Sevareid, who covered the American space program throughout the 1960s, reflected on the probable plight of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. "We're always going to feel, somehow, strangers to these men," he said, while the astronauts were still on the moon. "They will, in effect, be a bit stranger, even to their own wives and children. Disappeared into another life that we can't follow. I wonder what their lives will be like, now." As far as I'm concerned, this is a perfect example of Sevareid's genius.

Meanwhile, NASA's New Horizons probe has been sending back stunning photographs of Pluto, once a planet, now demoted to "dwarf planet" status. The most recent photograph, taken within 8,000 miles of the former planet's surface, hurtled across the solar system at the speed of sound, but Pluto is so far away that it took 4.5 hours for the image to reach the earth. Think about this for a moment. Our scientific capacity is so great that we can project a tiny capsule almost three billion miles away from the earth and bring it into a perfect rendezvous with a small rapidly moving spheroid. This would be like shooting a .22 caliber bullet in Bismarck and hitting a bouncing ping pong ball in Japan.

One of my close media friends wondered out loud the other day whether the photographs of Pluto were worth the $700 million it cost to send the probe. I say yes, absolutely, positively, unquestionably yes. Tomorrow marks the 46th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. I regard that event as one of the handful of greatest moments in the history of humankind. It's as great an achievement as Shakespeare's Hamlet, as great an accomplishment as the pyramids of Egypt, as great an triumph as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. I feel tremendously fortunate to have lived through that moment, to have sat in my parents' living room and watched the first human ever to set foot on a celestial object other than the earth. I find it appalling and unbearable that we have no rocket today that can project our astronauts into orbit, that we are forced to lighten our geopolitical pressures on neo-imperial Russia in part because they are the only space taxi that can get our astronauts up to the International Space Station.

We humans are measured by what our innate restlessness can make happen—in poetry, in sculpture, in architecture, in philosophy, in technology, in exploration. If we ever turn away from that restlessness, we may find happiness, but we will cease to be what Hamlet called "the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals."

Pluto wasn't discovered until 1930. It was demoted in 2006. The man who discovered Pluto, Clyde Tombaugh, grew up in a puny village called Burdett, Kansas. A small quantity of Tombaugh's ashes were placed in the New Horizons probe, thus carrying the discoverer to the planetary body he discovered. What could be more wonderful than that? Tombaugh was a Great Plains farm boy who developed a fascination with celestial objects and the kind of unbelievable precision that enabled him to pick out the planetary movement of Pluto against a dizzying sea of fixed stars.

I feel some special affinity with Clyde Tombaugh. We were born on the same day (February 4), though half a century apart. After World War II, he was stationed at White Sands Missile Base in New Mexico, where my father served for two years as a desk clerk and supply sergeant. It is at least possible that they met.

I've been more fortunate than Tombaugh (though I haven't discovered a darn thing), because he lived through the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. His plans to go to college were crushed by a hailstorm that ruined the family's crops and left his parents destitute. He began building home brew telescopes from local odds and ends in 1926. Four years later, at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, he discovered the trans-Neptunian planet that Percival Lowell had insisted must be out there somewhere. Tombaugh was only 24 years old.

Tombaugh has an asteroid named after him (1604 Tombaugh), but he did not get to name the planet he discovered. The name Pluto was suggested by an eleven-year-old English schoolgirl named Venetia Burney. All the previous planets (except earth) were named for Roman gods: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, so it was perhaps inevitable that the new planet would also be named from classical mythology. Pluto was the Roman god of the underworld, of darkness, and of death. Pluto (the Greek Hades) was able to make himself invisible. That's what led the young British girl to suggest the name. Tombaugh immediately approved.

The New Horizons probe has also taken photographs of one of Pluto's five moons, Charon. Charon was the figure in Hades who ferried the dead across the river Styx. Given the deep classical heritage of the discovery and naming of the planets, Charon adds considerable profundity to the designation of the last planet as Pluto.

It was at Fort Mandan, on the upper Missouri, in what would eventually become North Dakota, that Meriwether Lewis walked off the map of the known world on April 7, 1805. He believed, Euro-centrically, that every step he took west of Fort Mandan was the first ever made by a "civilized man." Lewis was so inspired by this idea—that he was going where no white man had ever gone before—that he began writing his journal after almost a yearlong silence. He said he was "now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width upon which the foot of civilized man had never trodden."

Boldly to go where no man has gone before—that's the essence of the human spirit.