When I was just two-years old Mariner 2 flew past Venus, marking the start of the human voyage of exploration to visit every planet in the solar system. A couple of years later as I raced past my fourth birthday Mariner 4 made the first successful visit to Mars.
Then a long wait until Pioneer 10 passed by Jupiter, closely followed in time by Mariner 10 on its visit to Mercury. I had just entered my teenage years and the inner solar system was ours.
I had come of age by the time Pioneer 11 reached Saturn and started show that the ringed giant was even stranger than our earth bound telescopes had led us to believe. We had finally reached the object that helped change our understanding of the entire universe. Galileo would have been four-hundred and fifteen.
I had graduated, qualified as an accountant and was married by the time Voyager 2 reached Uranus. I was twenty-five. Three short years later the same craft reached the beautiful blue planet of Neptune.
A year later, from a distance of six-billion kilometres, Voyager 1 imaged the Earth, in a frame popularised as ‘the Pale Blue Dot’.
Seven down, one to go.
Then we waited.
And waited a while longer.
I saw out my twenties and seemed to race through my thirties. I was a teacher now. The next decade saw the arrival of my two children. Along with the launch of New Horizons in 2006. The same year the International Astronomical Union stripped Pluto of its designation as a planet. I was forty-five. And I certainly didn’t agree with that.
For nine years the craft sped towards Pluto. It left Earth at the highest speed of any man-made object, 58,536 km/h. It gathered speed from a slingshot via Jupiter, an extra 14,500 km/h. It travelled five-billion kilometres to reach its destination three-billion kilometres from Earth. It finally arrived at Pluto this week, July 14th, 2015, flying past at a speed of 14.52 km/s (that’s an astonishing 1,254,528 kilometers per day, or 779,527 miles per day in old money). As I write this we still await sight of the flyby images.
I am fifty four. I have seen close up pictures of every planet in our solar system.
I salute the vision and skills and sheer bloody-minded perseverance of the thousands and thousands of scientists and engineers who committed their lives to make this extraordinary feat of exploration possible. And I salute Galileo and Kepler and Copernicus and Aristotle and Ptolemy and all the other giants on who’s shoulders they stand.
Pluto, welcome to the family. As long as I live, you will always be a planet.
What a time to have been alive.