The Million Dollar Book
May 29, 2016
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Insight: Ron Miller, an illustrator who helped us get to Pluto

Most of us are familiar with the “butterfly effect” which explains how the tiniest of actions can have profound impacts on everything. One of the best examples of the butterfly effect would be Ron Miller’s Pluto stamp.

Pluto Stamp

The stamp that started it all

On October 1 1991, The Postal Service issued ten Space Exploration commemorative stamps in Pasadena, CA. The designer of the stamps was Ron Miller, of Fredericksburg, VA. The ten stamps featured the nine planets and the Earth’s Moon, along with the unmanned spacecraft that had visited each of them, except Pluto. The farthest planet was always given the last preference when it came to deciding which planet was to be explored. Interestingly, Voyager 1 could have visited Pluto but that plan was scrapped in favor of exploring Saturn’s moon, Titan. There was one little line on Pluto’s stamp that irked countless space scientists, which immediately compelled them to plan a mission to Pluto. The line was “Pluto – Not Yet Explored“. One single line from Ron Miller’s mind sparked the foundations of a mission known to us today as New Horizons. The stamp was attached to the New Horizons spacecraft as a “thank you” of sorts. The ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, were also kept on board.

The most amazing fact is, even though a lot of scientists and astronomers had tried to get a mission to Pluto off the ground, none of their efforts materialized into a mission but all it took, in the end, was an unintended taunt printed on a stamp to get us to Pluto. As of today, the stamp is billions of miles away from Earth, racing towards the Kuiper belt and it will go beyond for countless years into the unknown depths of outer space.

UPDATE (20/7/2016) : This stamp has earned the GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS achievement for the farthest distance travelled by a postage stamp !

Who is Ron Miller?

I lack the stature to summarise a man as talented as Mr. Miller. The best word to describe him would be “polymath”. He is an illustrator, author and a member of various prestigious societies around the globe. He has received several awards during his life for his artwork and books. His list of achievements, books and memberships is too long to mention in this blog post, hence I’ve provided a few collapsed lists and links where you can read more about him.

Books Authored

  • The Space Art Poster Book (Stackpole, 1979)
  • Space Art (Starlog, 1979)
  • The Grand Tour (Workman, 1981; revised edition, 1993; revised edition, 2005) with William K. Hartmann
  • Worlds Beyond: The Art of Chesley Bonestell (Donning, 1983) with Frederick C. Durant, III
  • Out of the Cradle (Workman, 1984) with William K. Hartmann
  • Cycles of Fire (Workman, 1987) with William K. Hartmann
  • Stars and Planets (Doubleday, 1987) Illustrator
  • Mathematics (illustrator: Doubleday, 1989) Illustrator
  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Unicorn, 1988) Illustrator and translator
  • In the Stream of Stars (Workman, 1990) with William K. Hartmann; foreword by Ray Bradbury
  • The Bronwyn Trilogy: Palaces & Prisons, Silk & Steel, Hearts & Armor (Ace, 1991–1992) Novels; rewritten and published as A Company of Heroes (Baen Books, 2014) along with the additional fourth and fifth volumes, The Scientist and The Space Cadet
  • The History of Earth (Workman, 1992) with William K. Hartmann
  • The Dream Machines (Krieger, 1993) Foreword by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Extraordinary Voyages (Black Cat Press, 1994) Foreword by Forrest J. Ackerman
  • BrainQuest (Workman, 1994)
  • Firebrands (Paper Tiger, 1998) Illustrator
  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Dorling Kindersley, 1998) Adaptation
  • The History of Rockets (Grolier, 1999)
  • Bradamant (Timberwolf, 2000; revised edition issued as The Iron Tempest,” Baen Books, 2014) Novel
  • The History of Science Fiction (Grolier, 2001)
  • The Art of Chesley Bonestell (Paper Tiger, 2001) with Frederick C. Durant, III, foreword by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Mermaids & Meteors (Black Cat Press, 2005) Novel
  • Velda (Timberwolf Press, 2003) Novel
  • Worlds Beyond (eleven-book series, Millbrook Press, 2002–2005): Earth & Moon; Saturn; The Sun; Mars; Venus; Uranus & Neptune; Extrasolar Planets; Mercury & Pluto; Jupiter; Asteroids, Comets & Meteors; Stars & Galaxies
  • Special Effects in the Movies (Millbrook Press, 2006)
  • The Elements (Millbrook Press, 2004)
  • 13 Steps to Velda (Black Cat Press, 2005) Short story collection
  • Captain Judikah (Black Cat Press, 2005) Novel (later, as The Space Cadet, made part of the Company of Heroes series published by Baen Books)
  • Pathetic Selections (Black Cat Press, 2005) Editor
  • Journey to the Center of the Earth (Barnes & Noble, 2009) Translator
  • Space Innovations (four-book series, Lerner, 2007–2008): Rockets, Satellites, Robot Explorers, Space Exploration
  • Extreme Aircraft (HarperCollins, 2007)
  • Digital Art (Lerner, 2007)
  • Cleopatra (Chelsea House, 2008) with Sommer Browning; foreword by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
  • The Seven Wonders of Engineering (Lerner, 2009)
  • The Seven Wonders of the Gas Giants (Lerner, 2010)
  • The Seven Wonders Beyond the Solar System (Lerner, 2010)
  • The Seven Wonders of the Rocky Planets (Lerner, 2010)
  • The Seven Wonders of Comets, Asteroids and Meteors (Lerner, 2010)
  • Is the End of the World Near? (Lerner, 2011)
  • Journey to the Exoplanets (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) iPad book app; with Edward Bell
  • Recentering the Universe (Lerner, 2013)
  • Storm Chasers (Lerner, 2013)
  • Exploring Mars (Lerner, 2013)
  • The Art of Space (Elephant Books, 2014), forewords by Dan Durda and Caroline Porco
  • Return to Skull Island (Baen Books, 2014) with Darrell Funk
  • Velda: Girl Detective (Caliber Comics, 2015), 3-volume comic anthology
  • Spaceships (Smithsonian Books, 2016), forewords by Lance Bush and Tom Crouch

Awards

  • Lucien Rudaux Memorial Award for Lifetime Achievement in Astronomical Art, IAAA, 2003
  • Frank R. Paul Award for Outstanding Achievement in Science Fiction Art, Nashville, 1988
  • Award of Merit, Art Director’s Club of Washington, DC, 1981
  • Hugo Award for Best Related Work, 2002: The Art of Chesley Bonestell
  • Award of Excellence in Science Writing from American Institute of Physics, 2003: Worlds Beyond series
  • Nominee for 1982 Hugo Award for best nonfiction for The Grand Tour
  • Ten Best Books of the Year, 1984—Astronomical Society of the Pacific: Out of the Cradle
  • Ten Best Books of the Year, 1987—Astronomical Society of the Pacific: Cycles of Fire
  • Outstanding Science Trade Book, National Science Teachers Assoc./Children’s Book Council, 1987: Stars and Planets
  • New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age, 1992: The History of Earth
  • IAF Manuscript Award. Booklist Editor’s Award, 1994: The Dream Machines
  • New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age, 2000: Rockets
  • Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year, 2005: Venus
  • National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) / Children’s Book Council (CBC) Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12, 2005: The Elements
  • VOYA Nonfiction Honor List, 2009: Digital Art
  • 2001 Writer’s League of Texas Violet Crown Award for best audiofiction: Bradamant
  • 2012 SSLI (Society of School Librarians International) Book Award, Honor Book in the Science 7-12 category: Is the End of the World Near?
  • VOYA Nonfiction Honor List: Digital Art
  • NSTA/CBC Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12: The Elements
  • Junior Library Guild Selection; nominee for Library of Virginia Literary Award for Non-Fiction: Recentering the Universe
  • Best Children’s Books of the Year, Children’s Book Committee at the Bank Street College of Education: Curiosity’s Mission on Mars
  • Finalist, Locus Award for Best Art Book, 2014: The Art of Space

I asked Mr. Miller a few questions via Facebook, as follows :

1. Was there a specific motive behind the words “NOT YET EXPLORED” on the Pluto stamp ? If yes, what was it ?

Yes. All of the other stamps featured spacecraft that were associated with one of the planets being depicted. There had not been a Pluto mission at that time, so the stamp had to be labeled, “Not Yet Explored.”
No one thought anything about it especially, one way or another. It’s just the way it turned out. The stamps were originally meant to just show the planets. The Postal Service asked to have US spacecraft included. Since there was no spacecraft associated with Pluto at the time, there was little choice but to say something like “Not Yet Explored.” I think “Not Yet” was chosen to make it sound kind of hopeful.

2. Your stamp flew aboard the New Horizons mission, right past Pluto and is now headed towards 2014 MU69 . What was your reaction when you were told that your stamp will be a part of the NH mission ?

I was very flattered, of course!

3. Do you consider yourself an author first or an illustrator?

An illustrator. Many of my books are in large part an excuse to do the illustrations!

4. Would you like to share your graphic designing process?

It is a combination of deliberate and haphazard, traditional and digital. Although my finished art has been digital for more than 15 years, I employ many techniques in the process. For instance, I have built models from clay and other materials, used traditional paints and even pencils, digital photography and many other media as well as Photoshop and other software. All of these things are combined into the final artwork.

5. You are a member of the selective club of people that led to the New Horizons mission. What does it feel like ?

Well, all I did was supply a little inspiration. I think a Pluto mission would have been inevitable, regardless. But I am certainly proud of having played even a small role.

6. What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?

Probably my book, “The Grand Tour.” Although the first edition came out more than 30 years ago I still get letters from people who were inspired by it.

7. Most of your illustrations and books are related to space and astronomy. Did you ever wish to become an astronaut or spacecraft engineer during your teenage years ?

Sure…until I realized that doing something like that required more talent at math than I’d ever hope to have!

8. You have worked on some iconic movies like Total Recall and Dune. Why did you stop working on movies after 2002 ?

I didn’t really stop intentionally. I had never actively pursued working in films: I was invited to work on those two. And if someone were to ask me to work on another film, I’d gladly say yes. That being said, I have contributed to several other, mostly low budget, features.

9. Who would you consider to be your idol ? Do you draw inspiration from them or their works ?

Well, every space artist owes something to Chesley Bonestell—especially those who do the kind of realistic space art I do. But there are a great many other artists from whom I’ve gotten inspiration. The plain fact is that every artist whose work I see affects my own work in some way.

10. To add a unique twist to my interviews, I have come up with a plan to compile messages for the future from my interviewees into a time capsule, which will be opened decades later.

What is your message for the future inhabitants of our planet?

I’ll think of something to send to you later!

After all these years, Principal Investigator of the New Horizons mission, can be seen holding the “updated” stamp :

Alan Stern holding the Pluto Stamp

 

Shiv Kokroo
Shiv Kokroo
20. Programmer. New Delhi, India

3 Comments

  1. makuls says:

    Very nice! Keep it up !

  2. Shruthi V Suresh says:

    great choice of questions !!

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