At the center of it all was Alice Bowman, the woman in the cubicle and the engineer who led the team that guided the spacecraft towards its destination. For a while on July 15, she was trending on Twitter. Some cheered her role as the first woman to oversee an operation so ambitious, one that seems to have had more women working on it than any other mission in NASA’s history. Others wondered why her colleagues kept calling her Mom (it’s NASA shorthand for Mission Operations Manager). One week later, when I spoke to her, she was still stunned by all the attention. Her operation is one of brain-bending complexity, and she told me that it’s not always easy for her to translate what she does into words—at least words that most of us would understand. And she was noticeably uncomfortable discussing certain subjects, such as how the role of women in space exploration has changed since she entered the field in 1988. As she explained what it takes to move a small object through space, and everything that she’s seen along the way, what she conveyed most of all was a sense of pure wonder.
Alice Bowman: What isn’t interesting? There’s the chance to go to a planet that hasn’t been explored and all of the challenges involved with that. You actually get into these neat physics concepts that you learn in school—the Doppler effect, using quasars to help navigate. There’s also round-trip light time—that’s how long it takes a command to go from Earth to the spacecraft and back. In order to receive data on Earth, you have to command the spacecraft to start sending it 4.5 hours earlier. Likewise, if you want to send something, you have to send it to a point the spacecraft is going to be in 4.5 hours. It’s like splitting your brain in half.
AB: I would have been happy if the pictures just showed a gray planet, so I continue to be astonished. As a kid, you soak up all those pictures of Saturn, Mars, Mercury. But I hadn’t seen any of Pluto. My favorite one was taken on approach, and it was of the dark side of Pluto. We got closer, and there were all these craters swirling. People were calling them brass knuckles. I thought it was so unexpected, like a painting.
RM: It does seem that after the pictures came back, there was an outpouring of affection for Pluto. It was kind of an afterthought among the planets—the dwarf planet. But now we’re discovering that it has a tail, it has mountains…
On July 15, people all over the world watched a woman in a cubicle wait for a signal from three billion miles away. In a soft, clear voice, she confirmed that the New Horizons spacecraft had flown within 7,800 miles of Pluto and survived. In the following days, the spacecraft transmitted images that revealed for the first time what the surface of Pluto looks like. It has a smooth expanse just above its equator, some 1,000 miles wide, that resembles a bright, icy heart. It has frozen mountain ranges and spectral plains that may have only just formed. The detail of the photographs and the geological variety of Pluto exceeded all the hopes of NASA scientists. “I’m still having to remind myself to take deep breaths,” said one.