JPL History: From Lunacy to Lift Off
The origin of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) dates back to October 13th, 1936, when an audacious group of scientists armed with a healthy dose of genius and moxie (as well as an assortment of engine parts) drove down to the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and attempted to make real the stuff of science fiction. Known informally as the “rocket boys,” these young men conducted a series of innovative rocket engineering experiments.
These early efforts eventually led to the establishment of the JPL facility in 1944, led by Caltech professor and aerodynamicist Theodore von Karman. Since then, JPL has enjoyed a long history of being in the vanguard of planetary exploration, beginning with the investigation of our own planet in 1958 by Explorer 1. Amazingly, JPL sent the Mariner 2 spacecraft to Venus only a few years later in 1962.
Today, the Laboratory has over thirty major active missions. A few of those are Juno (at Jupiter), Cassini–Huygens (at Saturn), Dawn (at Ceres), the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the twin Voyager spacecraft, which are traveling at the edge of our solar system.
The California Institute of Technology continues to manage JPL for NASA as one of their ten field centers. While the Laboratory’s main focus is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, it has also directed some notable space observatories such as the Herschel Space Telescope and the currently active Spitzer Space Telescope. Other projects under their administration include NASA’s Near-Earth Objects Program, which coordinates observations of near-Earth asteroids and comets, and NASA’s Deep Space Network, the world’s largest and most sensitive scientific telecommunications system.
Arrival: A Cornucopia of Space Delights
It was a gorgeous, sunny day in Pasadena when I joined up with scientist, Mark Helmlinger, for a three-hour walking tour of JPL’s sprawling campus. After obtaining my official badge, Mark and I headed over to the Theodore von Kármán Auditorium, the site of JPL’s ongoing lecture series and press events. As we walked around the theater, I was so grateful to have a guide with an encyclopedic knowledge of JPL’s past, present, and future missions. Mark pointed out all the interesting features while regaling me with stories of Jack Parson’s notorious shenanigans.
The theater was flanked on either side by scale models of some of JPL’s most famous spacecraft. To our left were the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Voyager, and to our right were Cassini and the Huygens probe.
I had never seen a model of a spacecraft before, but my first impression was that they all seemed like flimsy toys to me. The gold foil covering Cassini and Huygens was tissue-thin—the kind of material better suited to wrap around a Christmas present, not a spacecraft on an 886 million miles journey to Saturn.
“This isn’t actually what Cassini is made of, right?” I asked Mark.
He laughed and explained that Cassini’s gold covering was actually a specially engineered cloak constructed from a multi-layered material of aluminized Kapton, Mylar, and Dacron. The blanket was designed to withstand the extreme radiation environment of space and shield the spacecraft against micrometeoroids for the duration of its 11-year mission.
“These guys are lot more durable than they look.”
Mark then added that all materials used for the models were used for the real versions too—each one was very accurate.
As I gazed in awe at the recreation of the Voyager—a spacecraft that has been visiting planets longer than I’ve been alive on this one—I thought, “These guys are lot more durable than they look.”
I was really excited to see that a replica of one of the Golden Records currently carried aboard both Voyager 1 and 2 was included in the model, and it did not disappoint in person. The record has a wonderfully sci-fi look to it, like something you’d find on the Starship Enterprise. Similarly to Cassini’s blanket, its gold-plated coating provides protection from micrometeorite bombardment. It also has the dual function of looking really cool.
The outside of the record is covered in diagrams explaining how to listen to it on a phonograph, instructions for how to view the images it contains, and a map showing the location of our solar system. The record also has a uranium-sourced radioactive clock electroplated to its surface that measures the duration of Voyager’s time in space.
Recorded on the 12-inch copper disc are spoken greetings in 55 languages ranging from the ancient Akkadian to the modern Chinese dialect Wu, printed messages from President Carter and U.N. Secretary General Waldheim, a 90-minute selection of music from a variety of cultures and eras, natural Earth recordings such as thunder, bird songs, and ocean waves, and 115 images encoded in analog form.
Carl Sagan was responsible for compiling this eclectic mix tape of Earth life. Although forty thousand years will pass before either Voyager 1 or 2 closely approaches another planetary system, and although the odds are questionable that either would ever be intercepted by a spacefaring civilization as advanced (or more so) than our own, Sagan had hopes that one day the records might find themselves in the right hands (or paws, or claws, or whatever aliens have) and represent Earth favorably. As Carl Sagan said, “The launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”
A few of my favorite images from “Scenes from Earth” stored on Voyager’s Golden Record.
A cornucopia of space delights
After perusing the spacecraft in the auditorium, I then followed Mark to the adjacent museum—a darkly lit shrine to JPL’s momentous history of space exploration.
This one small room contained exhibitions featuring all of JPL’s missions spanning across the entire ordered solar system, from the Sun to the outer planets. At the center of it all was a full-scale model of Galileo that stretched from one end of the room to the other, imposing itself with its boss Galilean-ness like Jabba the Hutt.
The breath of JPL’s achievements was staggering—as was the creeping mixture of claustrophobia and hyperactive distraction I felt as I tried to take it all in at once. I didn’t know where to look first. There were moon rocks, space rocks, video screens, miniature models of various spacecraft hanging from the ceiling and larger models posed on the floor—it was a cornucopia of space delights.
One of the Lucite showcases featured a luminous, translucent, pale yellow cube of some mysterious substance.
“What is that?” I asked Mark.
“Oh, that’s aerogel! If you coated your body in that stuff, you could walk right through a fire and not get burnt.”
Aerogel played a critical role in the success of NASA’s Stardust mission; it was used to safely trap comet dust traveling at high speeds. Aerogel is a porous silicon-based substance with a volume of 99.8% air—an extraordinary material that’s quite lovely to look at too. I fantasized about placing a stylish little cube of it on my coffee table as a conversation piece, which led me to this.
After spending about half an hour in the museum, I felt like I had a surprisingly thorough crash course on JPL’s missions. As Mark and I walked out of the Visitor’s Center, our eyes squinting from the stark Pasadena sun, I looked back and reflected on how the smallness of the building belied the magnitude of the historical artifacts inside. I couldn’t wait to see where we were headed next. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the…
Space Flight Operations Facility
The lobby of this building alone was spectacular. There was a model of the Curiosity Mars rover that was frankly—adorable. Not to anthropomorphize a rover, but I had never really seen the resemblance between the rover and Wall-E till now.
As I gazed lovingly at the rover, Mark asked me if I had noticed the funny pattern of holes on all six of its tires. I hadn’t.
Here’s the backstory on that: When scientists were trying to figure out how to calculate the distances between Curiosity’s drives, they realized they could do so by visually measuring the track marks imprinted into the Martian soil by the rover’s wheels. The formal name for this tool is visual odometry. The problem was deciding on what kind of stamping pattern the wheels should make. Given that the rover was designed and built at JPL, they naturally suggested that the wheels print “JPL”—but NASA wasn’t too keen on the idea of “JPL” being intermittently stamped across the Martian surface for hundreds of kilometers. Understandably so—it might seem a tad…territorial? The clever (not to mention sneaky) solution to this conundrum was to have the wheels say “JPL”—but in Morse code.
To the left of the Rover was yet another fantastical object— a cylindrical structure that looked just like a Star Trek teleportation device, consisting of dozens of strands of white LED lights extending from the ceiling to a base on the floor. Every second, a wave of flashing lights washed upwards along the strands, then reversed direction, and then reversed direction again, in a rhythmical cycle.
“What is that thing?” I asked Mark.
He explained that what I was seeing was real-time communication streaming back and forth between JPL’s spacecraft and the Deep Space Network. Lights streaming upward were triggered by communications sent from JPL to a spacecraft, and lights streaming back down were the data returning from a spacecraft.
I think it’s safe to say that the lobby of the Space Flight Operations Facility is the coolest lobby of all. Then it got even cooler.
At the moment I snapped this shot of the sign, there were 3,701 exoplanet candidates, 1,937 of which were confirmed, and 13 of which were in the habitable zone. However, when I rechecked those numbers on JPL’s PlanetQuest website the day I wrote this article, and now I’m confused. While there are 3,701 Kepler exoplanet candidates, only 1,042 of those are confirmed, and I couldn’t find any info about which one of those were in the Goldilocks zone, but according to this website, there is a total of 32 potentially habitable exoplanets. I’ll let the scientists hash this one out.
Though I could have lingered in the lobby all day, Mark insisted that even better things were ahead.
And were they!
He led me up a few flights of stairs and I found myself in a dimly lit viewing gallery overlooking JPL’s epic Mission Control Center—the headquarters from where all of the rovers, probes, telescopes and orbiters under the umbrella of NASA’s Deep Space Network are monitored and managed, and where mission team members superstitiously chomp on traditional “good luck peanuts” before all planetary landings. I felt like I was lording over the whole room from my vantage point above it; it was like watching space TV.
The room was crammed with bright screens of all sizes—large ones along the ceiling depicting antennas from various locations on Earth and spacecraft from different locations in the solar system, medium ones that flashed with incessantly scrolling color coded lines of text—some of which I could interpret—“DAWN,” “SOHO,” “JNO,”—and small screens that still managed to dwarf the silhouetted people peering into them.
While Mission control has changed pretty drastically since 1964 thanks to technology, one thing hasn’t changed: it’s manned 24/7. It even has its own designated power supply in case of any blackouts, or as Mark ominously noted, “national emergencies.” Which makes sense—if the power went down then the spacecraft would have no way of communicating back to us on Earth. And that really would be just like Wall-E.
When JPL employees go outside to play you can be their playground is way cooler than yours.
Although I didn’t want to leave this stunning place, Mark reminded me that more of our journey lay ahead. I reluctantly left the building, and once again had to adjust my eyesight to the daylight (Do people here ever go outside, I wondered?)
I soon learned the answer to that question—yes, yes they do. And (unsurprisingly) when JPL employees go outside to play you can be their playground is way cooler than yours.
The Mars Yard
The Mars Yard is just that: a yard, or a sandbox really, that functions as an accurate analog for the Martian terrain. Why? So that we don’t send a very expensive little rover all the way to Mars just to have it bust its tires. Everyone knows that Mars is rocky—but assessing how much damage those rocks can do to the machinery is a critical part of the engineering process. So researchers take their robotic prototypes out for a test drive in this yard to see how they’ll fare in the Martian wild.
As I walked through the dusty square, I noticed rocks of all shapes, textures, and sizes scattered about. Mark informed me that many of them were flown in from the Mohave Desert, where the landscape is naturally Mars-like. One of them looked like pumice stone, which I briefly daydreamed about pocketing as a souvenir, as well as a salve to soothe my weary feet after such a long walking excursion. (JPL is huge!) But the tour was almost over. One last stop…
Spacecraft Assembly Facility
Remember that scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the original, not the frighteningly crappy remake) where Willy Wonka escorts the gang into the pristine white room where Wonkavision is produced? If not, let this jog your memory:
That’s basically the same place where spacecraft gets assembled at JPL.
According to their website, the High Bay 1 cleanroom is certified to a cleanliness level of Class 10,000, meaning there are less than 10,000 particles of 0.5 microns or larger in size per cubic foot of air volume. In other words, cleaner than clean, and thus, “a great place to work if you have allergies” (and I do.)
Nothing was going on in the cleanroom while I was there, but here’s a video of what it looks like when the place is hopping:
Oops, I mean this one:
I did, however, get to catch a glimpse of a solar panel prototype of the Juno orbiter. That thing is going to Jupiter!
Sadly, this was where my journey ended. Mark had to get back to his important work, and I had to immediately scan through all my photos to make sure I hadn’t dreamed up the whole thing.