Alan Stern’s Moonshot to Pluto Wins the Internet
Maybe I’m biased, but the top five worst things to happen in 2006 were a 6.3 earthquake that killed 6,000 people in Indonesia, the three Nickelback songs on the Billboard top 100, and Pluto’s demotion to a dwarf planet. That last one really stung, because earlier that year NASA had launched New Horizons, the now-famous interplanetary space probe en route to the planet. This year, Pluto fans were vindicated when the erstwhile probe reached its destination, and sent home some of history’s most exciting space data. New Horizons is a bona fide cultural phenomenon. And the mission’s principal investigator, Alan Stern, is vindicated after more than two decades of lobbying, planning, and waiting. Ever since the July flyby, Stern’s face has been locked in a wide grin, and his mouth has been spewing data-backed Pluto boosterisms. His mic-drop moment came shortly after New Horizons sent home its now-iconic heart picture. When a reporter asked Stern to comment on Pluto’s status as a dwarf planet, he replied, “It’s bullshit.”
Maybe I’m biased, but the top five worst things to happen in 2006 were a 6.3 earthquake that killed 6,000 people in Indonesia, the three Nickelback songs on the Billboard top 100, and Pluto’s demotion to a dwarf planet. That last one really stung, because earlier that year NASA had launched New Horizons, the now-famous interplanetary space probe en route to the planet. This year, Pluto fans were vindicated when the erstwhile probe reached its destination, and sent home some of history’s most exciting space data. New Horizons is a bona fide cultural phenomenon. And the mission’s principal investigator, Alan Stern, is vindicated after more than two decades of lobbying, planning, and waiting.
Ever since the July flyby, Stern’s face has been locked in a wide grin, and his mouth has been spewing data-backed Pluto boosterisms. His mic-drop moment came shortly after New Horizons sent home its now-iconic heart picture. When a reporter asked Stern to comment on Pluto’s status as a dwarf planet, he replied, “It’s bullshit.”
A few exploding rockets notwithstanding, commercial spaceflight had a great year. Elon Musk’s SpaceX got cleared to fly top secret Air Force cargo into space. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin landed a rocket. And NASA announced its would be sending astronauts up to the International Space Station on private spacecraft starting in 2017. All of that is good momentum for an increasingly ambitious industry, but the real win came from a bunch of Washington bureaucrats. In November, Congress updated the SPACE Act to allow private companies to keep and sell on Earth whatever they may find in space. Yes, that means asteroid mining can now legally proceed. Of more immediate importance, the act also shields the commercial space industry from any FAA nannying through 2025. And you know why. So they can keep on ridin’ to the Danger Zone!
Science is not a game of winners and losers. What am I saying: Of course it is. From the Nobel Prizes to congressional budget allotments, first-time discoveries to straight up cool shit, some research just comes out on top.
You don’t have to think hard to come up with some of the obvious winners. Successfully flying a space probe to Pluto? Winner. Cut-and-pasting the human genome? Winner. Negotiating America’s energy future and also having superb flowing locks? Winner.
If you can stand feeling like an unaccomplished lump of crap, scroll down to see all the science heroics from the past year.
In 2015, the world finally, collectively, decided to take climate change seriously. Yes, I’m mostly talking about the historic Paris climate deal, where top negotiators from every country agreed to cut fossil fuel emissions in order to keep global temperatures from rising by 2˚C. A big part of that deal’s success came from groundwork laid earlier in the year. Most notably, Obama’s coal-cutting Clean Power Plan, and China’s commitment to a nationwide cap and trade program.
OK, maybe this victory is bittersweet. After all, climate action could have come a long time ago, if it weren’t for decades of obstructive, contrived, and conspiratorial denialism which put millions of human beings—both living and future—in unnecessary danger. And sure, the Paris deal isn’t perfect (it effectively relies on peer pressure to make sure countries comply). But after 50 years of warnings, even a tiny bit of progress feels nice.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. Earlier this year, the US and Iran inked a deal. The US lifted its economic sanctions, and the caliphate agreed not to make nuclear weapons. Coming to an agreement was a slog of sleepless nights, shouting matches, and walk outs. But the real battle was trying to sell the agreement to congressional Republicans. So the only sensible move for the Obama administration was to call in Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz. Capped with a hairdo worthy of Shakespearean odes, Moniz calmly, scientifically, explained to fuming Repubs how the deal ensured that the US would know if Iran was making weapons. Pundits think Congress could agree to lift sanctions as early as January. If they do, it’s all thanks to Moniz and his Prince Valiant bob.
Or like, politics and stuff.
Thanks to some bold scientists working in gene-editing, playing God hit the mainstream in 2015. And while there are several ways to snip a nuclease, Crispr is taking all the headlines, due to its cheap price and ease of use. Things fired up in April, when Junjiu Huang, a molecular biologist at Sun Yat-sen University in China, used the technique to edit human embryos. Even though he used fertilized eggs with no shot of growing up, his paper set off a huge ethical debate. This eventually culminated in a December meeting in Washington, D.C., where researchers for the most part agreed to take gene editing nice and slow.
But that wasn’t Crispr’s only story arc. All year long various researchers kept announcing new applications: Super buff Crispr beagles, Crispr as a cancer treatment, Woolly mammoth genes Crispr’ed into elephant DNA. And the media took notice. Crispr in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Popular Science, Scientific American, National Geographic. And yes, Crispr was even on the cover of WIRED. In case you needed any more convincing that this thing is a big deal.
Science isn’t exactly starving. But it has known some lean years, mostly thanks to the seemingly neverending budget standoffs on Capitol Hill. Never fear, nerds, Silicon Valley is here! Witness, Google (or Alphabet or whatever) putting $50 million towards curing heart disease. Check out YC Research Labs, an biotech incubator from the biggest mother hen in the tech world, YCombinator. Drool away at the $560 million venture capital groups sunk into synthetic biology this year. And for a nightcap, talk a walk down the red carpet to the 2015 Breakthrough Prizes, which awarded $22 million to researchers.
Not that the government has been totally lax. The 2016 omnibus spending bill—released November 16—adds $2 billion to the National Institutes of Health’s budget, among raises to NASA, the FDA, and NOAA. All that is awesome, but perhaps most surprisingly, the bill removed earlier restrictions placed on the National Science Foundation, limiting the amount of money it could put towards climate and earth sciences. Fatten up while you can, science.
Welcome to the future, where every space robot has its own Twitter account. Likewise, you’d be hard pressed to find an astronaut without an Instagram, a discovery without a hashtag, or a NASA mission without a multi-platform-spanning social media strategy. For example, look at how the agency’s media nerds carpet bombed Twitter during the New Horizons fly by, and debuted the now-famous Pluto heart picture on Instagram.
In all, NASA has over 500 social media accounts. Now, some people might scoff at the agency’s unabashed #branding. But truth is, public outreach has been in the agency’s mandate since its founding in 1958. And if this means more people get stoked on space—and therefore vote to give space research more funding—then we’re all for NASA’s relentless self-promoting. OK, sometimes they get a little bit out of hand. I mean, check out this email I got from them earlier this week:
Science is about proving yourself wrong in order to be right. That means scientists are constantly checking their own and each others’ work, course-correcting towards captial-T Truth. Problem is, capital-S Scientists are usually too busy shoving coal into the new discovery engine to fact check the canon.
University of Virginia psychologist Brian Nosek wasn’t having it. So in 2013 he founded the Center for Open Science. Its flagship product is the Reproducibility Project—100 canonical psychology experiments re-run for verification. The results came out this year, and things didn’t look great. Well over half of the experiments didn’t work out the second time around. To some, that represents millions of wasted research hours, and lost research dollars. But really, it’s good news because it provides data-driven evidence that the field’s hypercompetitive push to publish new research is hurting the science. And for snigglers who think psychology was a soft target, look out: Nosek is coming after cancer biology research next.