Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Researching STEM Kidlit - Guest Blogger - Mary Kay Carson

Mission to Write a Book About Pluto

Kids love Pluto. When I’m giving an author visit presentation about the solar system at schools and question time comes around—half of those hands in the air are attached to students asking something about Pluto.

So when the first-ever spacecraft to Pluto finally launched in 2006, I knew I wanted to write a book about it. Fortunately, I had 9½ years to figure it out. Pluto is 3 billion miles away. The robotic probe spacecraft New Horizons wouldn’t reach the (then) farthest planet until mid 2015. 

Full disclosure, I’m a bit of space geek. Space stuff is all just so cool—spacecraft dodging the rings of Saturn, telescopes that see back in time, lakes of methane on Titan, etc. And I’ve been writing about space for kids since (gulp!) 1991 when I worked at Scholastic’s SuperScience magazine.

But back to Pluto. By the time New Horizons was closing in on its target, I’d written a few books in Houghton Mifflin’s Scientists in the Field series. So, I successfully pitched a Pluto book to my editor there. Late in 2013 myself and my photographer husband Tom Uhlman had contracts. Now all we had to do was make it happen. 

Writing about real time stuff can be tricky. The manuscript deadline was August of 2015, a month after the July 2015 scheduled arrival of New Horizons at Pluto. The plan was to get the book out as soon after the (hopefully successful) mission happened as possible. What that meant in practical terms was that I needed to write most of the book before a spacecraft actually visited Pluto.

New Horizons’ is headed up by planetary scientist Alan Stern. He’s Pluto’s #1 fan, one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in The World, and a very busy person. When I contacted him about the book project, he suggested focusing on the team of scientists, instead of just himself. That seemed great as it’d give some depth to the book to have women and people from other nations featured. Plus, in truth, I’ve gotten burned on book projects that rely on a single person, so was happy to have eggs in multiple baskets.

There was a complication, however. “Team New Horizons” doesn’t live in one place. The (ongoing) mission is based out of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHAPL) in Laurel, Maryland. That’s where the engineers and operations people are. But Alan Stern and some of the other planetary scientists are at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Others are at the University of Colorado as well as the SETI Institute in Silicon Valley, California. And some of the press conferences surrounding the Pluto flyby would be held at NASA in Washington, D.C. Can you say logistics?

The team would be together in Maryland at JHAPL for the Pluto Flyby event in July of 2015, of course. But that would be too late to get interviews and photos of folks at work, a requirement of Scientists in the Field books. Plus we weren’t even sure early on whether we’d get press passes to the flyby event. Thankfully, we were able to crash a meeting of the New Horizons science team in Boulder in the fall of 2014. We got great photos of scientists explaining their research. (Check.) And I got some facetime with scientists. 

In early 2015 I traveled to JHAPL in Maryland to meet with some operations people and have a tour of mission control. (Check.) Between then and the Pluto Flyby in the summer, I followed up with telephone interviews with the individual team members. All this added up to getting credentialed for the Pluto flyby event! (Check!) Plus now that the team members featured in the book knew us, we had a bit more access to them than we would have had otherwise. 

Being at the New Horizons Pluto Flyby event made all the logistics and hard work worthwhile. The press pass still hangs on my bulletin board! It was so exciting to be in the auditorium with scientists and reporters from around the world as the very first ever images of Pluto’s surface came in. Wow! 

And the book got written, too. (Check!!) It’s called MISSION to PLUTO: The First Visit to an Ice Dwarf and the Kuiper Belt.

Mary Kay Carson is an author of nonfiction books for young people and a STEM Tuesday blogger. Her book Alexander Graham Bell for Kids received a 2019 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize. 
     She’s written six titles in HMH’s acclaimed Scientists in the Field series,including The Tornado Scientist(2019).


Nancy Castaldo has been writing about the planet for over 20 years. Learn more about her award-winning books at

Coming this spring! Pre-order now! 

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