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The Calm Before the Storm

Entrance to Kossiakoff Center, JHUAPL

Entrance to Kossiakoff Center, JHUAPL

On the surface, all seemed quiet on Sunday at the Kossiakoff Center at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) in Laurel, Maryland. A few dozen members of the media spoke with some of the leaders of the New Horizons team, including Principal Investigator Alan Stern (a member of the Lowell Observatory Advisory Board) and Lowell planetary scientist Will Grundy. The center certainly had a Lowell feel to it, with Stern and Grundy just two of several people with Lowell ties on hand.  Former Lowell scientists Marc Buie, Cathy Olkin, John Spencer, Amanda Zangari, and Simon Porter were also around. Former curator Samantha Thompson, now living in the Washington, D.C. area as she works on her PhD, appeared, too. Later, while I ate dinner with friends from Clyde Tombaugh’s hometown of Streator, Illinois, I noticed a couple other familiar faces at the table next to us. Among astrobiologist/author David Grinspoon and other scientists were Tyler Nordgren and his wife Julie Rathbun, both of whom studied at Lowell years ago. Tyler recently joined Lowell’s advisory board and has also authored several popular astronomy books, as well as created a variety of space posters inspired by WPA educational posters of the 1930s.

Some media folks such as space historian Andy Chaikin—perhaps best known for his book A Man on the Moon, which described the voyages of the Apollo astronauts—snatched a little one-on-one time with some of the scientists and engineers. Others tested out cameras, recorders, and other A/V equipment. But overall the scene inside the building was as tranquil as outside, where a flock of geese by a nearby lake was about the only sign of life.

As Grundy put it, today was the calm before the storm. On Monday the Kossiakoff Center will be transformed into the center of the science universe, as several hundred VIPs will join the scientists, engineers, and media personnel to celebrate the new year with New Horizons’ flyby of the Kuiper belt object Ultima Thule. The day-long series of speeches, panel discussions, press briefings—and yes, even musical performances—will be broadcast by NASA via its TV and digital outlets, so that people around the world can watch. This is good news, because just a few days ago it looked like NASA wouldn’t have any coverage due to the government shutdown. The day will culminate with the 12:33 a.m. (technically on January 1) flyby, with the first images coming back later on Tuesday.