Alan (far left) and his team celebrate after New Horizon's historic Pluto flyby in 2015.

Strapped into his ejection seat at 15 different points, Dr. Alan Stern feels like a part of the powerful F/A-18 Hornet jet as it hurtles into the stratosphere. He's thrilled to be in the air and back on the hunt.

This isn't a combat mission. Alan is a planetary scientist. And while the U.S. Navy's F/A-18 Hornet is a battle-proven fighter jet, NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center.

Alan and his colleague, Dr. Daniel Durda, used the modified F/A-18 Hornet with a sophisticated camera system called the Southwest Ultraviolet Imaging System (SWUIS) to search for a group of mountain-sized asteroids between the orbit of Mercury and the Sun that are so elusive and hard to see that scientists aren't even sure they exist.

With Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, it's wide open. It's like the Wild West. You get to be the first to do things. It has its own romance and excitement in addition to the actual research value.
- Alan Stern

The F/A-18 jet gave Alan a unique view to search for the giant space rocks called Vulcanoids. The twilight is darker at high altitudes, which allows the camera to capture better images. He's also used the orbiting Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft to search for the elusive objects.

Chasing Vulcanoids was just one exciting chapter in Alan's amazing planetary science career exploring what he calls the Wild West of our solar system -- mysterious, unexplored regions in space that may harbor clues to the origins of our little neighborhood in the Milky Way Galaxy. He loves his work.

Alan is best known as the principal investigator on New Horizons, the first-ever mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. He has made detailed studies of Neptune's largest moon, Triton. Every now and then his desire to learn something new brings him closer to home to study asteroids or the thin atmosphere of the Earth's Moon.

He has been a guest observer on numerous NASA satellite observatories, including the International Ultraviolet Explorer, the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Infrared Observer and the Extreme Ultraviolet Observer.

How did you get involved in the Vulcanoids program?

I'll never tell! I'm kidding. I've had a long-term interest in aviation and I was a finalist to fly on the Space Shuttle, so I've been around hardware a lot. I've flown instruments for years. When the opportunity presented itself to go for the comet Hale Bopp, we needed a high altitude platform and we were able to show NASA that it was easier to turn the right astronomer into a backseater crewman than it was to turn a professional backseater into a guy who can do all the science.

My institute paid to send me to Pensacola Naval Air Station for the requisite training. And I took some other courses and of course the medical checks and came out the other end qualified to fly on the WB-57 and then later other aircraft.

What makes you think Vulcanoids are there?

I don't know if they are really there. What I can tell you from experience is that everywhere in the solar system, where there are stable orbital niches -- the asteroid belt, the Kuiper Belt, the Trojan regions of Jupiter, you can go right down the list -- every place there is a stable niche, material is there. So experience would tell us it's a fair bet that there may be some Vulcanoids. But we could be completely wrong. This is a different place. It's much hotter and so only certain materials could persist there. And because it's close to the sun, radiation pressures can actually clean the region out. It is so much more affected than, for example, the asteroid belt; it may be that there are no Vulcanoids. I can't tell you until we finish, but I guarantee if we find them you won't have a hard time hearing about it.

How did you wind up working on the Pluto mission?

I actually started my career in planetary science with a master's thesis on Pluto.

Why do we need to send a spacecraft to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt?

We're in the space exploration business and the outer solar system is a wild, wooly place. We haven't explored it very well. Pluto and the Kuiper Belt have been just ranked by our once-every-ten-years decadal survey to be the highest priority for exploration in the solar system. That's not by our group, but an independent panel from the National Academy of Sciences. It's No. 1 on the runway for making progress toward understanding the birth of the solar system.

Why is that?

In part, it's because that region of the solar system is much more primitive. It's much more like the formation days. And also because we know so little, we have so much to gain.

It sounds like you love your job. Is there anything you don't like about your career?

No one working as an astronomer is shackled in chains. This is a tremendous profession. There are lots of neat people and you get to do cool things. If I had to say something negative, it's that there's often a whole lot of travel that takes me away from my children. That can be a bummer a lot of times.

When did you know you wanted to be involved in space science?

I would say since I was 7 or 8. I've had this illness a long time ... I just got real excited by the Apollo program and wanted to be part of space exploration.

How did you decide to focus on the planets of our solar system?

I like the planets because they are real places that you can go to and send machines to. Faraway astronomy -- galactic astronomy and extra-galactic astronomy -- is really cool stuff, but to me it's about destinations. I picked the outer solar system because by the time I was in graduate school all the first explorations of Mars and Venus and Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus were already out of the way and there was no chance to get on board something really groundbreaking. With Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, it's wide open. It's like the Wild West. You get to be the first to do things. It has its own romance and excitement in addition to the actual research value.

Alan Stern and New Horizons
Alan Stern with New Horizons in the Atlas V Vertical Integration Facility hangar just after RTG (Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator) installation and arming on 13 Jan 2006. New Horizons is visible through the hatchway in the Atlas V nose fairing. Credit: NASA

What kind of advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?

Study hard. Whether it's atmospheric science, geology or engineering, whatever it might be -- pick something that you really like to do because the hours are long. Go to the best school and hook up with the best people you can find. But also take some time out to be a well-rounded person.

Are there any people that inspired you?

John Young, Dave Scott and Harrison Schmidt, Apollo astronauts, all inspired me. If I had to pick people who really inspired me, it would be those guys and Carl Sagan.

What do you do for fun?

I raise my kids. I have three children. Between work and my kids, I pretty much gave up my other hobbies. I used to fly Cessnas, but I can't talk myself into it anymore. It's pretty hard to get into that Volkswagen once you've driven Mach 1 racers. I like gardening. I like photography. I've written some books and I like writing. But more than anything, I like raising my kids.

I also like my work. And there's way too much exploring to be done for a 40-hour week.