New Horizon's Pluto Flyby Draws a Crowd, Including Neil Degrasse Tyson, to Museum of Natural History

New Horizons
An artist's impression of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft encountering Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, is seen in this NASA image from July 2015. NASA

The excitement in the air was palpable as hundreds gathered at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City this morning to experience New Horizon's flyby of Pluto live. The space enthusiasts, unperturbed by the early hour, were treated with "accurate-to-the-second" scientific visualizations and a livestream from New Horizon's mission control at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Among those hosting the event was celebrity astrophysicist and cosmologist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, arguably the closest thing the scientific world has to a rock star.

"This is a special moment; this is a special day with nine years of anticipation leading up to it," said Tyson, shortly after the spacecraft reached its closest approach to Pluto at 7:50 a.m. EDT, amid loud cheers from the audience.

The NASA spacecraft was originally launched on January 9, 2006, and after traveling up to speeds of 8 miles per second for 3,462 days, was ready to conduct groundbreaking observations today of the dwarf-planet Pluto.

The AMNH event was linked with the New Horizon's control room; it was also connected via video to similar gatherings across the world from Brisbane, Australia, to Hamburg, Germany, capturing well the international (or even interplanetary) significance of the moment.

Scientists speaking from the control room found it hard to contain their emotions: "I'm not feeling very articulate right now because I'm overwhelmed," said David Grinspoon, astrobiologist and senior scientist at the Tucson, Arizona–based Planetary Science Institute. "As a human being [sic—he was a little overwhelmed, after all] we have expanded our image of the universe—it's a wonderful moment!"

"It's happening!" said Orkan Umurhan of the NASA Ames Research Center in the minutes leading up to closest approach, another exclamation that was met with loud cheers from the audience at the AMNH.

Tyson pointed out that the wonder and excitement felt by the AMNH audience was shared by generations of humankind. "To see a distant object for the first time is one of the oldest emotions humans have," he said, comparing it to our ancestors intrepidly wondering "what's on the other side of that mountain?"

Frances Bagenal, professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, made it clear in the live link that it was an emotion she thought NASA would continue pursuing: "Just because we've checked off Pluto doesn't mean we've stopped."