Before he helped guide a spacecraft to an object farther than any previously observed, Marc Buie was a child who watched the first moon landing from his family's home in Baton Rouge.
"That's what got me started and really fired up about science. I wanted to be an astronaut like every kid around," he recalled.
Buie began writing airlines, figuring a career as a pilot might help him transition to a lunar module. But poor eyesight shut that door.
Instead, after attending Woodlawn when it was a K-12 school, Cedarcrest Elementary, Sherwood Forest Junior High and Broadmoor High School, he turned to the lab.
At LSU, he started as an undergraduate student with researchers who operated the precursor to the observatory that detected gravitational waves using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave observatories at Livingston and in Hanford, Washington, in 2015.
With time, Buie rose in prominence, becoming an authority on the dwarf planet Pluto and beyond. He is stationed in Boulder, Colorado, as a scientist with the Southwest Research Institute. When it came time to send a spacecraft into the farthest reaches of the solar system, he joined NASA's New Horizons team.
Starting in 2004, Buie spent a decade looking for a good object for New Horizons to visit once it finished observations of Pluto. It was a difficult task because that area of the sky is crowded and backlit, he said.
But scientists are interested in that region of the solar system, known as the Kuiper belt. For whatever reason, objects that far out haven't formed into planets, and astronomers believe they may help them discover how a new star surrounded by gas and dust turns into a mature star system with planets.
Using the Hubble Space Telescope, Buie found what he was looking for — a small body nicknamed Ultima Thule, a reference to its location beyond the borders of the known world. It's a tiny, peanut-shaped rock in space that shows what it might look like if scientists were able to freeze time between a dust cloud and a fully formed planet.
Now NASA would just have to fly a spacecraft traveling 32,000 mph past a heavenly body only 21 miles long, and 4 billion miles away. Buie would need to gather more data before the team could thread that needle.
Astronomers could learn about Ultima Thule's size, shape and direction by waiting for it to pass in front of a star. By looking at the shadow — or occultation — scientists could find out more.
The first try involved coordinating observers in South America and South Africa. A second attempt used a telescope mounted on an airplane in flight. Both failed to produce usable results, and time was running out.
Buie's team made a trip to the Patagonian region of southern Argentina. They might have a window to catch the occultation, but there was a hitch — high winds. Sensitive telescopes start having trouble with gusts of just 10 mph, and they become unusable once they reach 20 mph, Buie said.
"(The locals) thought we were absolutely insane," he remembered.
But the Argentines threw their support behind the astronomers, bringing out tarps and other material to block the wind. A geology professor donated his own equipment. The mayor of nearby Comodoro Rivadavia suggested driving up freight trucks to shelter the telescopes. Police blocked a highway for two hours to keep things calm.
"I have never in all my years doing this work seen a community so accommodating, especially for this crazy idea," Buie said.
It worked. They made the measurements they'd need to help pilot New Horizons to Ultima Thule.
The craft sent back a message on New Year's Day confirming it successfully made contact. In the PBS documentary "Pluto and Beyond," Buie can be seen cheering the transmission with the rest of the team.
Despite LIGO and his own success, Buie said he doesn't actually run into a lot of colleagues from Louisiana.
"It's really tough to connect with astronomy in Baton Rouge. ... It was a little bit of a struggle getting into this stuff growing up in Baton Rouge," he said.
Blame the weather. The frequent cloud cover makes it hard for burgeoning young astronomers to stargaze.
Telescopes in Louisiana are fine for looking at the moon or some asteroids but not for serious research, said LSU professor emeritus William Hamilton. He's the physicist who brought Buie into his lab as an undergraduate, and for whom a grateful protégé named his first discovery — asteroid 9116 Billhamilton.
However, scientists are more reliant on the Hubble for physical observations now, the professor continued.
"Classical astronomy is almost a thing of the past," he said.
Now, there is more interest in making observations outside the visible light spectrum, such as infrared, and facilities such as LSU are interested in being part of that research, Hamilton said.
"The next Marc Buie is probably working in one of our labs now," he said.