Visiting Pluto

The American spacecraft, New Horizons, launched almost a decade ago, is as of this Earth morning, some two billion miles away on the other side of our Sun. It is approaching Pluto at an extraordinary speed, on a trajectory that will this coming Tuesday pass over the planet by less than eight thousand miles, before spinning off farther into the Kuiper belt. Aboard, it has equipment including cameras to gather more than one thousand times the data Mariner IV could assimilate during the first planetary fly-past, of Mars fifty years ago.

Those of my age will remember that childhood excitement: perhaps the most dramatic moment in exploration until the manned voyages to the Moon. Extraordinary vistas were opening; the “conquest of space” seemed to be at hand. But now, instead of 12 or 13 minutes, we wait more than five hours for the pictures to return; and the universe seems once again to be spreading out of our reach, far away. (God be with our little spaceship! Keep her online for us through the pass!)

I gather it contains various mementos, including one ounce of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh (1906–97), who discovered Planet Pluto in 1930. (It has been reclassified recently as a “dwarf planet” by the International Astronomical Union, but I invite gentle reader to ignore those killjoys.) Tombaugh was also a prolific discoverer of asteroids, and a flying saucer enthusiast.

Too, let me add, a skilled astronomical draughtsman, whose sketches of what he saw of Mars and Jupiter through his telescopes are heritage property, to be carefully preserved. Drawings remain more detailed and informative than photographs, because the trained human eye can pick out features that film and pixels tend to blur. On the other hand, the human mind can be unaccountably whimsical, and can in this case work only with the material that optical equipment supplies. The closer the view, the more that can be seen, and it is a pity that today NASA uses draughtsmen only for garish, scientifictional publicity pictures. I attribute this to the general creeping scientism; they also toy with Earth climate data to get more sensational results.

In an old class yearbook, from when I was eleven, my “ambition in life” is marked down as astronomer. Under “fate,” the class wag added, bird watcher.

Pluto I recall as a particular enchantment, and somewhere in my files there may still be a short, scientifictional story I wrote around that time, on a manned voyage to Pluto. I was rather staggered by the plot, on returning to it decades later; for I had all but forgotten a brief “born again” period from my childhood, before the “evangelical atheism” of my adolescence set in. It was a time when I carried a Gideon pocket New Testament around with me, wherever I went, with the intent of memorizing the whole thing, like a good madrasah pupil. (Alas, the New Testament is longer than the Koran, and less rhythmic.)


The astronauts in my story, after a ten-year voyage, including fly-pasts of planets known to be uninhabited, found a whole civilization in this unlikely place. They were welcomed, cautiously, upon landing among the Plutonians; but had little initial success in conversing with these intelligent creatures, who stood less than a cubit high, and had skins so thick they seemed to be in spacesuits themselves, under their woolly garments; gills for ears, tiny mouths like nostrils, the swivelling eyes of chameleons; relating with each other apparently by eye contact alone. There were birds, too, smaller than our hummingbirds, but with long thin tapering wings; and the strangest array of moss-sized plants and sparkling tiny flowers, what looked like bonsai trees, and grains no taller than unmowed lawn grass — growing about a little town in neatly-kept fields, and waving gently in the thin atmosphere.

Into this small, walled community all went, Plutonians leading, and our Earthling giants following — slowly and carefully climbing over the gates, and choosing only the widest boulevards to avoid damaging the diminutive habitations. Bowls the size of shot glasses were being filled with a Plutonian wine, to offer our visitors. Prelates in gorgeous gowns were striding forward on what resembled miniature camels, and silent anxious crowds were emerging from the houses.

The astronauts moved compulsively towards the largest building, at the centre of this compact metropolis. It was almost Romanesque in design, and had three stone towers, standing one hundred feet high. At the top of each they noticed a Cross. The story concluded with a line one astronaut spoke to another:

“He’s been here, too!”