Pluto and Las Cruces

This has been an exciting week as the New Horizons Probe has flown by Pluto. The views of this little world and its moon Charon have really made them come alive as places on the distant edge of our solar system. Although I’m not directly involved with the Pluto teams, I know several people who are, including one person on the imaging team who brought us the now famous image of the “heart” on Pluto and a person who was responsible for helping the craft navigate Pluto’s crowded system of five moons. However, perhaps the person connected with Pluto, I was most honored to know was Clyde Tombaugh, the man who made the initial discovery.

This July 13, 2015 image provided by NASA shows Pluto, seen from the New Horizons spacecraft. (NASA via AP)

This July 13, 2015 image provided by NASA shows Pluto, seen from the New Horizons spacecraft. (NASA via AP)

I can’t say I knew Clyde well. He had retired by the time I arrived at New Mexico State University in 1995. Still he regularly attended astronomy department colloquia and maintained an interest in the department’s activities—not surprising, since he founded the NMSU astronomy department. I attended Clyde’s 90th birthday party, hosted by the department and learned a lot about him from the department chair’s address. Sadly, I attended his funeral less than a year later. This week, as New Horizons flew by Pluto, the Albuquerque Journal interviewed me about my recollections of Clyde.

I maintained two of his telescopes—a small solar telescope used for department events and a larger telescope which was in Ecuador in the 1950s and used to search for small, undiscovered bodies orbiting the Earth. The negative result for that study had important ramifications for the next decade’s space program. Two years after Clyde passed away, I was asked to portray him at Las Cruces city events celebrating the 150th anniversary. This video shows a public service announcement which ran on KRWG TV where I portrayed Clyde:

As it turns out, discovering Pluto was only the beginning of Clyde’s career. Afterwards, he went to college and graduate school. That’s right, Clyde only had a high school diploma when he discovered Pluto! He discovered several asteroids. He was one of the first people to notice that the universe had a large scale structure. As I mentioned earlier, he looked for, but didn’t find, objects besides the moon orbiting the Earth, and he founded the astronomy department at New Mexico State University. He also founded the Unitarian Church in Las Cruces. Now, he’s also the first man whose ashes are being carried outside the solar system on the New Horizons probe.


My own explorations of the solar system have been much more humble. I’ve helped look at asteroids that would pass near the Earth and I’ve also helped with programs looking for distant Kuiper Belt objects beyond the orbit of Pluto. Nevertheless, I find the whole process of exploring the solar system exciting and would jump at the chance to do so. I imagined such a voyage in my novel The Solar Sea. You can learn more about the novel, watch a book trailer, read a sample chapter, and see some cool illustrations based on the novel at

6 comments on “Pluto and Las Cruces

  1. therailbaron says:

    Wow. I used Mr. Tombaugh as a background character in a short story I’m trying to get published. Now his name is once again on the public’s mind. Fascinating that you knew him! I agree that space travel in a worthwhile ship would be something worth cutting in line for, but that also makes me realize how little money goes toward pursuing such a thing. I feel at times we could have had an entry level USS Enterprise by now for Moon/Mars exploration. As to your books, I am cracking open the Pirates of Sufiro and loving it.

    • Thank you on all counts! Yes, space travel seems like a popular thing for politicians to cut because enough of the general public can’t see the relevance in their lives. Despite that, work toward the space program has contributed to so many things we use every day and would be lost if we didn’t have them. And we got that for a tiny investment compared to what we spend on wars and other items that do so little for humankind’s advancement.

      • therailbaron says:

        Yes. While I am loving the images of Pluto and Charon, it reminds me also of the lack of space funding. We could be on the Moon, living ala Star Trek if the war machine wasn’t so costly. It is a sad state.

  2. ericamilesx says:

    Fascinating article! Especially since your friend, Clyde Tombaugh, was accomplishing such awesome things and exploring space from a deeply mature but never-grow-old perspective. Inspiring to any generation, but especially to older adults.

  3. ericamilesx says:

    Reblogged this on authorericamilesblog and commented:
    The following article describes how Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto, accomplished such awesome things as a nanagenerean–exploring space from a deeply mature but never-grow-old perspective.

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