The campus of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. is a thrill to visit anytime. Since their hugely popular annual open house was canceled this year due to budget cuts I was treated to a special behind the scenes tour last month.
Technically speaking, JPL isn’t even in Pasadena — it’s located in La Cañada-Flintridge, just west of Pasadena. It is a part of CalTech, and NASA’s flagship location for robotic space exploration. If there’s an unmanned US-built spacecraft out there, JPL had probably something to do with it.
And it’s literally a cradle-to-grave deal. There is a task force whose main job it is to think up new space missions, study the feasibility both in technology and finances and pitch them to the Powers That Be. That “Bag an asteroid” mission we just learned about? Yep, it was born there. Once approved the spacecraft are built and tested here, and all science communications after launch are routed through here as well.
So many space exploration superstars originated at JPL. I’d need a few pages here just to list them all! Voyager, Galileo, Cassini, New Horizons, Messenger, Dawn … you name it. And of course the media darling of them all: the Mars Rover missions.
There are life-size replicas of all Mars Rovers in the JPL museum, along with interactive features on their functionality. Movies educate the casual visitor about the broad scope of space science served by the JPL missions.
Off limits to the general public — and thus a very special treat — is Mission Control. Ah, you thought that was in Houston, right? Well, the one for manned spaceflight after launch is there. Prior to and during launch it’s the one at Kennedy Space Center. And the one for the Mars Rovers is at JPL.
You’ve all seen those rooms on TV during last year’s landing of the Curiosity Rover, where “Mohawk Guy” Bobak Ferdowsi became an overnight celebrity. Walking in there is a unique experience — you can still feel the tension, the emotions of so many people running high, the euphoria over a flawless landing. And it’s a lot smaller than you might think — apart from several rows of work stations with multiple monitors, there isn’t much elbow room.
Things are a little more spacious in the “Darkroom” next door — a much larger Mission Control Center for the Deep Space Network, that looks a lot more like the one in Houston: large monitors in the front of the room, tiered rows of work station, subtle LED lighting (which, I was told, can change color to reflect the season or special holidays).
It is awe-inspiring to see the multi-colored displays of all the space missions vying for communication time with the giant radio antennas at Goldstone. Each color represents a code for the uplink or downlink status, and there is a dizzying array of numerical data streaming across other screens. You watch space communications in action here - and people staff this room 24/7/365, because spacecraft, for all the human characteristics we tend to see in them, do not rest and couldn’t care less about sleep cycles, vacation days or lunch breaks. Time is at a premium here, nobody wants to waste even a single second of a connection.
The people who work at JPL, with notable mohawk-topped exceptions, rarely make the headlines. But it’s because of them that we have so many exciting missions out there and can experience Curiosity’s travels almost as if we were there ourselves.
Find out more about the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/
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 firstname.lastname@example.org