New Horizons successfully made it past Pluto! At long last we have actual images of the once-planet's surface! It's all tremendously exciting and there have been many times over the last few days where I've given myself over to giggling and bouncing around with joy at this momentous occasion. I grew up when the Voyager planetary tours were already a fait accompli, and I'd always kind of resented that the decision had been made (for very good reasons, to be fair) to skip Pluto in favor of exploring Titan. Pluto was an enigma, sketched in with best guesses in the astronomy books I devoured as a kid, visible in photos as nothing more than a few distorted pixels.
That's all different now. Pluto may no longer be an official planet, but I think I'll always think of it as one, and the pictures New Horizons is sending back feel like the completion of something that's been nagging unresolved since the 70s. And personally, too, it feels like the completion of something else.
When New Horizons launched, in January of 2006, I was in middle school. Still very much in the thrall of my astronomy phase, I excitedly set about calculating where I'd be in life when the mission reached its flyby destination. 2015! What a strange and distant date! I would be not just done with high school, which was exciting enough, but the mysterious otherworldly realm of college, too! Where would I be? Who would I be? What would I be doing? (This was before I decided I wanted to be a composer, before I really knew that being a composer was a Thing You Could Do. I don't recall exactly how specific I got in my imaginings — most of it was a sense of wonder, not future life construction — but I've little doubt that any and all specifics I came up with were decidedly wrong.)
Over the course of the past decade, this date has always been floating in the back of my head. Not every day, but also not infrequently, I'd go "Huh, it's only X more years until New Horizons reaches Pluto. Looks like I'm still going to be a year out of college when it gets there.". Certainly every New Year's Day, and likewise at the end of every academic term, among many other occasions. It was a constant background refrain, a signpost planted way out in the hinterlands of the future, holding open a temporal vista and making it feel real.
That's gone now. Looking ahead, I don't have any anchor points that far in the future. I mean, sure, there are going to be elections in their various cycles, but it's not like we're already considering candidates for 2024. I can prophesy my graduation from grad school in the spring of 2018, but I don't know which one, and three years is a much less daunting span. I can try to imagine what my life will be like at arbitrary dates, but there are no fixed points, nothing I feel confident is going to happen a decade from now regardless of what any of us do in our various lives.
And that's weird, at least for me. I'd gotten very used to having that guidepost, that certainty. In some strange way, I feel like New Horizons helped give structure to my life, and now that it's passed its goal, I'm on my own. The scaffolding has fallen away, and I'm hurtling forward into an uncertain future with nothing to hold on to. (Then again, that's more or less the same boat that New Horizons itself is in now, so maybe there's some resonance left.)
For now, tho, I'm mostly just excited. One of the great mysteries of our solar system has been revealed at last, and it is more beautiful than I ever could have imagined.