The team guiding the first mission to Pluto is fondly remembering Venetia Burney Phair, the "little girl" who named Pluto when it was discovered nearly 80 years ago. Mrs. Phair died April 30, 2009 at her home in Epsom, England, at age 90.
"Venetia's interest and success in naming Pluto as a schoolgirl caught the attention of the world and earned her a place in the history of planetary astronomy that lives on," says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern.
In June 2006, the New Horizons team renamed the spacecraft's Student Dust Counter instrument in her honor, calling it the "Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter" (VBSDC, or just "Venetia" for short). Six months later, in a small ceremony in Mrs. Phair's home, Stern and SDC Principal Investigator Mihaly Horanyi presented her with a plaque, certificate and spacecraft model to commemorate the renaming. "She was a thoroughly intelligent, likable and endearing woman," Stern says. "The entire New Horizons team is saddened by her passing."
The New Horizons dust counter is the first the first science instrument on a NASA planetary mission to be designed, built and operated by students, and by late next year it will be operating farther out in the solar system than any dust measurement instrument in history. Stern and the SDC team members thought it fitting to name instrument built by students after Mrs. Phair, who was just an 11-year-old student herself when she made her historic suggestion of a name for Pluto in 1930.
"Her death deeply saddens the former and current crew of the VBSDC instrument," says Horanyi, who, like the dust counter student team, is from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "Her contribution will be lasting, not only by naming Pluto, but also by giving an example to young people of the value of intellectual curiosity and the rewards of a lifelong interest in science and discovery."
This interview was recorded shortly before the January 2006 launch of NASA's New Horizons mission to explore Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. New Horizons made a successful flyby of Pluto on 14 July 2015.
Listen to the Interview
Hi, this is Edward Goldstein with NASA Public Affairs. I'm talking to Venetia Phair, the lady who 76 years ago had the distinction of suggesting the name for Pluto, the newly discovered ninth planet. Venetia is currently a retired school teacher in Epsom, England.
At NASA we're very excited because next Tuesday, hopefully, we're going to launch the first robotic mission to Pluto. And given that you had the historic role of naming the planet, I wonder if you are quite excited about that?
Yes I certainly am.
Venetia, can you tell us a little bit about the circumstances that happened in 1930 that brought you to suggest the name of Pluto?
Yes, I don't quite know why I suggested it. I think it was on March the 14th, 1930 and I was having breakfast with my mother and my grandfather. And my grandfather read out at breakfast the great news and said he wondered what it would be called. And for some reason, I after a short pause, said, "Why not call it Pluto?" I did know, I was fairly familiar with Greek and Roman legends from various children's books that I had read, and of course I did know about the solar system and the names the other planets have. And so I suppose I just thought that this was a name that hadn't been used. And there it was. The rest was entirely my grandfather's work.
And your grandfather (Falconer Madan) was a librarian I understand who had a lot of friends who were astronomers.
That's exactly right. He was retired He had been Bodleian's Librarian, which is the head librarian in the Bodleian at Oxford, which is the university library of course.
And he suggested the name to the astronomer Herbert Hall Turner, who then in turn cabled the idea to the American astronomers at the Lowell Observatory. Is that correct?
That is correct, yes. Professor Turner had been Astronomer Royal in the past and was a professor at Oxford. On the day it was suggested-my grandfather dropped a note to him-he was, on that day, attending a meeting in London of the Royal Astronomical Society. They were all thinking about names, but for some reason, none of them thought of Pluto.
And you thought about it because of the Greek and Roman mythology about Pluto being the god of the underworld?
I don't think...I doubt if I was as subtle as that. I just thought it was a name that hadn't been used so far, and might be an obvious one to have.
And was it also because the first two letters PL have a connection with Percival Lowell?
No, I certainly didn't realize that or appreciate that at the time. But I quite see it would be a major factor in their deciding it would be a good name. And it is certainly appropriate.
What happened once the planet was named? I understand it was named in May of 1930. Were you thrilled when you heard that your suggestion was the one; that Pluto would be the name?
Yes, I certainly was thrilled. It was very exciting for a small girl really at the time.
How were you informed about it?
I think my grandfather told me. I'd heard nothing you see. I'd just really forgotten about it for the intervening months. But he was fairly active.
Was there any great fanfare when the name was announced?
Well not...to a limited extent. I think the newspapers were mostly occupied by the exploits of the woman pilot Amy Johnson at the time (Amy Johnson was the pioneering English aviatrix who in May 1930 became the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia). Anyway, there was a certain amount...you know a few papers I think. My grandfather collected any information there was through a press agency and put it into two scrapbooks that I have, which I treasure, and from which I can refresh my memory at times.
Well we hope you have that scrapbook out next week when we launch New Horizons.
Yes, I expect so. What I know is, I've just been by the way sent rather a nice little badge by Johns Hopkins University, which I think is probably the badge I would have been wearing if I'd been able to go to the launch. So I think I'll wear it from now until after the launch.
Wonderful. Now I understand your great uncle Henry Madan named the moons of Mars Phobos and Deimos. So you come from a family of people who name heavenly bodies?
Yes, I think that is one of the nicest things about the whole story. I'm so very pleased because he had done that from a much more knowledgeable base that I came upon the name Pluto. It's all been very nice for me really.
I would imagine so. Have you ever seen Pluto through a telescope?
I don't think I have. I've just seen a photograph of Pluto, I think the first photograph that Clyde Tombaugh was looking at, and the next picture showing that the same little pinpoint had moved a certain degree. I have been to Flagstaff, and they were very kind. And they showed us around and they showed us the telescope through which it was first seen.
Did you ever meet Clyde Tombaugh?
No, never, sadly.
Did you ever correspond with him?
I understand that some school kids here in America recently corresponded with you from the St. Mary's Episcopal School in Memphis. That must have been nice.
Yes, it was a great joy. I quite suddenly had 62 letters. I think they all sat down, all the eight and nine year olds, with instructions to write a letter to me. This must have been an English essay or something. But they were very charming letters. And I enjoyed each and every one of them.
Do people in your home town know you have this role in history?
Not to any great extent. Some of them may know because I believe that the BBC when it does it's coverage of the launch, which I'm sure will be fairly thorough, may slip in a bit, a small interview with me. But on the whole, it doesn't arise in conversation and you don't just go around telling people that you named Pluto. But quite a lot of friends know and are interested.
You mean you've never had that temptation at a holiday gathering to tell your friends that?
Well not really, but sometimes it's nice, sometimes I'm glad to have them know.
What if anything would you like to tell all the scientists and engineers and all the people who worked on this New Horizons mission? What would you say to them?
I would say, I think, "The best of luck." And I can only hope that they discover all that they want to discover from this probe which must be one of the most exciting things that has happened astronomically recently.
When you look back at your life, isn't it exciting that there you were an 11 year old school girl who named this planet, and we've come so far technologically that now we can send a spacecraft all this distance in the solar system to this planet Pluto?
Yes, it is absolutely amazing, but it is paralleled by almost everything that has happened in the world, hasn't it. I mean we have stepped so far into the future as it were since the 1920's and 1930's. It leaves one absolutely stunned.
Do you like to look up at the stars?
Very much. Sadly it gets increasingly difficult to (do this). It's so well lit around here that only the brightest stars really get a look-in unless we have a power outage of course. But occasionally if one is in the country, and it is a good clear night, it is absolutely wonderful.
Now I understand you were a teacher. What did you teach?
I taught economics, which had been my subject in university and a little elementary math.
And at no time had you ever told your students that you had named Pluto?
I don't think so. No. It didn't really come to mind much. There had been years and years when I never really thought about it. I think its only since Patrick Moore wrote an article in Sky and Telescope in 1984, and I should think that since then there has been an increasing amount of interest in it, especially in America, which has been delightful for me because as one gets older one's horizons narrow. And it's been very nice have to have say these letters from St. Mary's in Memphis, or this chat right now shall we say.
It's been very nice for you to talk with us too. And on behalf of NASA we really thank you for your enthusiasm and all you've done to help advance the exploration and discovery of the universe around us.
Well that's very nice of you. I have my kind invitation from NASA, and I treasure that too. I shall put it on the mantelpiece, I think, conspicuously, to look at. And I just wish everybody concerned with the launch that the whole thing will be the success that they hope.