Once upon a time mankind believed that Earth was the center of the universe. Everything — the moon, sun and other planets wheeled subserviently around our fair home, and boy did we ever feel important!
Then came science and rational thought, and telescopes and space exploration, and suddenly we were no longer all that unique — living somewhere in the suburbs of a very average galaxy in an unimaginably big universe.
Today we know of course that the center of the known universe is in the middle of a dark room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. There's even a plaque inset in the floor, covered with a protective glass plate, which proudly proclaims this very spot to be the middle of, well, everything.
On my annual visit to the headquarters of the Solar System Ambassadors Program (of which yours truly is a veteran member) I was able to spend time in the SFOF — that's NASA-speak for the Spaceflight Operations Facility. Most of us would refer to it as Mission Control. It looks similar to the one in Houston, where they handle manned spaceflight. At JPL, that's where all the robotic spacecraft call home. And since there are manmade spacecraft all over the place, it is literally — if looked at it through a space explorer's eyes — the center of the universe. This is the place where all the data the spacecraft gather arrives for processing, and it's also where the commands going out to the spacecraft get sent.
Imagine yourself in a large dark room, about the size of a gym, facing one of the longer walls. The wall is covered with colorful displays that change constantly. One screen shows you which spacecraft is talking — or listening — to Earth right now, and which ones are awaiting their opportunity for a chat. Another screen shows a computer-generated image of the dish antenna sending or receiving the signal — rendered accurately in the time of day it happens to be in. Other screens show images of the spacecraft that's in communication.
The information is a little overwhelming at first, but you quickly learn to read and interpret it. In front of you there are curved rows of work desks, all with several large monitors, keyboards and the prettiest phones you have ever seen: every single one displays a stunning color photo of one of the superstars of astronomy photography, the likes of which we get from Hubble, Spitzer and other space-based telescopes.
The room is quiet and dark; you feel compelled to whisper in the presence of so much technology. While I stood there observing Rob Sweet, the mission controller for the Curiosity Mars Rover work I listened to the SFOF manager Jim McClure Jr., who, as it turned out, is from Jesup. It's a small world after all.
I asked both gentlemen whether they ever developed personal attachments to spacecraft — whether they ever became more than chunks of metal, fiberglass and circuitry, and they were both emphatic that yes, it's inevitable to find yourself becoming emotional, especially during those major events like launch and landing — and presumably also the end of a spacecraft's life.
Whew — this means I'm not the only one who feels that witnessing a data download of both Voyager spacecraft in real time is a visceral experience that leaves you in awe of what humankind is capable of accomplishing, and that makes you feel connected to the rest of the universe in a very tangible manner.
The remarkable thing is that you don't have to be at the center of the known universe to feel this way. Anytime you read or watch something about space exploration, you are connected to this amazing human outreach program to the rest of space and time.
And that's just plain awesome, don't you think?
Learn more about the SFOF at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Flight_Operations_Facility
Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at email@example.com