On July 14, 2015, the entire world looked to the sky as an historic event transpired 3 billion miles away. At the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Dr. Alan Stern ’75 and his team crowded around a computer and waited for a transmission from across the solar system. Just before 9 o’clock in the evening, a cheer rang out as confirmation arrived that the New Horizons spacecraft had successfully completed mankind’s first flyby of Pluto, coming within 7,800 miles of the dwarf planet’s surface.
“Following in the footsteps of planetary exploration missions such as Mariner, Pioneer, and Voyager, New Horizons has triumphed at Pluto,” Alan said. “The New Horizons flyby completes the first era of planetary reconnaissance, a half century-long endeavor that will forever be a legacy of our time.”
Close-up images of Pluto (pictured below) and its moons soon appeared in newspapers and on screens around the globe. The probe will spend more than a year transmitting all of the data it collected, but the information NASA has already received has rocked the scientific community.
New Horizon's story is far from over. In 2017, NASA officially extended the mission to include a flyby of "2014 MU69," a potato-shaped Kuiper belt object the size of Manhattan. In December 2018, the world will once again wait on New Horizon's transmission as it passed by the most distant object ever explored.
As a boy, Alan was caught up in the Space Race of the 1960s. One day, while driving down Preston Road with his parents, Alan noticed a private school with an observatory and planetarium, and his interest was piqued. That observatory and planetarium were part of the newly dedicated, state-of-the-art McDermott-Green Science Quadrangle.
“When my parents got me into St. Mark’s, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” Alan said. “The School helped me toughen up and become a much better student than I ever knew I could be. I give a lot of credit to St. Mark’s for enabling my career and making me the man I am today.”
While Alan’s career has taken him across space, he has always remained dedicated to 10600 Preston Road, where his journey started. Since New Horizons launched in 2006, Alan has returned to campus multiple times. He was chosen as the Commencement Speaker for the Class of 2008, received the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2009, was a panelist in the inaugural STEM Conference in 2013, and celebrated his 40th Reunion this past April, just three months before the Pluto flyby.
“St. Mark’s is very much about making a man out of a boy,” Alan said. “Even in high school, I could feel I was on an escalator going somewhere.”
Forty years after donning his white dinner jacket at Commencement, Alan Stern is continuing to ride that escalator into the farthest reaches of space.