Kyle Cassidy photographs the New Horizons science team.

Meet the Scientists Who Helped Make Those Groundbreaking Pluto Photos Possible

Meet the Scientists Who Helped Make Those Groundbreaking Pluto Photos Possible

Behold
The Photo Blog
July 20 2015 10:49 AM

Meet the Scientists Who Helped Make Those Groundbreaking Pluto Photos Possible

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Left: Dr. Leslie Young, SWRI, Mission Co-I, Deputy Project Scientist & Pluto Encounter Lead. “Pluto promised us something wonderful, and it hasn't broken its promise. After this week, 'Planet or not?' is the least interesting question we could ask.” (Runs back, says, “Wait, just change my quote to: ‘SQUEE!!!’ ”) Right: Dr. Mark Buie, SWRI, Mission Co-I, GGI, Hazards, Pluto Underground. “Pluto has always been my favorite planet. And now I have a lot of company.”

Kyle Cassidy

When Kyle Cassidy got a call Friday afternoon from his longtime collaborator Kate McKinnon to see if he wanted to photograph the scientists behind NASA’s New Horizons space probe, he didn’t think twice before he agreed. He threw a bunch of equipment in a suitcase, got in his car, and drove from Philadelphia to Laurel, Maryland. By the evening, he’d set up a small studio in the lobby of mission control at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

McKinnon is married to William B. McKinnon, one of the mission scientists, and so she already knew all the people who worked on the craft, whose flyby past Pluto last week captivated people around the world. As more than 40 of the scientists came in and out of briefings that night and the next day, she wrangled them for Cassidy to photograph for a minute or two. Some of the scientists came into the lab during their first days off in months just for the photograph. Others were still on the same hectic work schedule they’d been operating under for years.

“New Horizons is bringing back incredible amounts of information. No one thought Pluto would be as interesting as it’s turned out to be,” Cassidy said. “They were elated and overjoyed that there was all this stuff coming back, very relieved and excited. This was something they'd been waiting for 10 years—some for 14 years—to see.”

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Left: Dr. Yanping Guo, APL, Mission Ops, Lead Trajectory Designer. “The trajectory to Pluto, being so far from the Earth, was difficult. I’ve always been interested in combining the practicality of engineering with the wonder of science.” Right: Dr. William B. McKinnon, Washington University, Mission Co-I, GGI Deputy Team Lead, Pluto Underground. “I do science because I want to know. I wanted to know what the planets are really like, and one by one, I found out.”

Kyle Cassidy

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Left: Dr. Cathy Olkin, SWRI, Mission Co-I, Deputy Project Scientist. “Being a part of this team is an honor. I began working on New Horizons more than a decade ago during development of the spacecraft and instruments.” Right: Dr. Hal Weaver, APL, Mission Co-I, Project Scientist. “The binary system of Pluto and Charon has been revealed to be complex and diverse, and we are seeing completely unexpected results. This is FUN.”

Kyle Cassidy

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Cassidy—whose portraits of librarians were featured on Behold in February 2014—is equally interested in making portraits of people “in their spaces or out of their spaces.” For this series, he chose to photograph the scientists against a neutral background to highlight their individual personalities and separate them from the surroundings and events through which they’ve recently been viewed.

“We've been watching them on TV and social media and we've seen them in their context constantly; we've seen them in mission control and giving press briefings. I think when you take someone out of their context and put them in a neutral space sometimes it's easier to know that person,” he said.

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Left: Dr. Kimberly Ennico Smith, NASA Ames, Mission Co-I, Deputy Project Scientist. “New Horizons brings views of a first world to the whole world, here on Earth, shared by all … exploration at its finest.” Right: Dr. Kelsi Singer, Post-Doc SWRI, GGI. “Aside from the fabulous pictures, it’s wonderful to explore other worlds and to have planet-scale examples of features that we also have on Earth, which helps us figure out how these geologic processes occur.”

Kyle Cassidy

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Left: Dr. Alex Parker, SWRI, Post-Doc, Hazards. “This is my first encounter with a new world. There was no way I could have anticipated the overwhelming feeling of being in the control room and seeing the data come in. I kept reminding myself, ‘This is real.’ ” Right: Dr. Alice Bowman, Mission Operations Manager. “I love science. I have a unique position as a bridge between the science and engineering teams, and these pictures are beautiful. If I have a small part to play in this, I’m grateful.”

Kyle Cassidy

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Left: Dr. Brian May, Scientific Collaborator. “Pure art and pure science are the pinnacles of human endeavor. You can add love to that if you like. So much of what we do is for money, power, or advancement, but pure work is important because it stands apart from the things that we do for survival and extends the range of human consciousness.” Right: Dr. Amanda Zangari, Post-Doc SWRI, GGI. “Pluto is magnificent and the rest of solar system is incredibly diverse. Everything is worth investigating.”

Kyle Cassidy

For Cassidy, who’s loved science and space since he first watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos decades ago, photographing the team was the culmination of a lifelong passion. He was particularly excited to meet Yanping Guo, who calculated the entire trajectory of the spacecraft’s nine-and-a-half-year, three-billion-mile journey. He was also pleased to photograph Brian May, the Queen guitarist and astrophysicist who collaborated with the team. But while each individual’s contributions to the mission amazed Cassidy, he said he was most impressed by what they ultimately were able to make possible together. 

“The Pluto mission is not a spaceship that flew to Pluto and took pictures. The Pluto mission is an extension of the minds of these people. It's these people saying, ‘Here’s a question we don't know the answer to and we're going to figure it out.’ That's what the Pluto mission is.”

You can follow Cassidy on Twitter and see more behind-the-scenes images and text from his visit to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

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Left: Dr. Jeff Moore, NASA Ames, Mission Co-I, GGI Team Leader. “Science is important for our understanding of how the universe works and what it means for our stewardship of our small part of it. The Earth doesn’t care what we do. We need to take care of the planet or it will take care of us.” Right: Dr. Ivan Linscott, Stanford, Mission Co-I, Co-PI of Radio Science Experiment (REX). “Some of us are born with a desire to explore; it’s hard to take that out of our souls. Having a chance to get under the hood of an enigma like the Pluto system is irresistible. You’d have to be crazy not to want to look.”

Kyle Cassidy

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Left: Dr. Will Grundy, Lowell Observatory, Mission Co-I, Surface Composition Team Lead. “The thing I like best about science is having different people that know different pieces of the puzzle and coming together to figure out problems in group. The Pluto system is complex enough that it’s forcing us to do this anyway; no one of us could answer these questions alone.” Right: Dr. Ralph McNutt, APL, Mission Co-I, PI, PEPSSI instrument, Pluto Underground. “Science is about drawing back the veil of ignorance, which is what we all have to do as we look toward the future and keep the human race on target to bigger and better things.”

Kyle Cassidy

Jordan G. Teicher is the associate editor of Slates Behold blog. Follow him on Twitter.