August 17, 2006
NASA Jet Propulsion Lab tour
On Tuesday, only a few weeks after we made our reservation, AEJ and I went to the NASA JPL — the Jet Propulsion Lab. JPL is a NASA center, but it’s staffed and managed by Caltech. (Its independence makes it feel more legitimate to me. I’m just waiting for the government to change NASA’s official mission to “Go find Jesus.”)
The JPL is in Pasadena, probably 15 minutes from our house. We left early, though, so as not to risk being late. We even rushed through lunch — Snackers at KFC.
We got to the gate at the JPL, but we were 45 minutes early. (Damn lack of traffic.) The security guard gave us directions to a shopping district 2 minutes away, so we headed there. What did we find in that shopping center? Why, a Petco! Inside, there was this guy:
And… Well, I don’t know what to say about this guy.
After parking at the JPL, we waited in the lobby for a few minutes for the tour to start.
They had things to read, like Universe. It seemed a little smart for me.
This is a map of the massive JPL. See all those numbers? There’s no key. Nowhere. If you work at the JPL, you just know the number of each building. These are rocket scientists.
I dug this — an old-school phone with a directory of rocket scientists.
It seems that science is more an emphasis here than, say, English. AEJ’s explanation was that everybody is left-brained. I was just like, “the employee’s only what?! I have to know!”
They give you this sweet badge when the tour starts, just so you look extra cool.
In the 1970’s, NASA sent Voyager out into space (it was a JPL project), and it sent back all kinds of amazing photographs of Saturn (and other planets) that I remember seeing when I was a kid. The thing is still going. It’s now over 2 billion miles away — and it still works. That’s a model of it on the right.
One thing they did was include a sort of Earth time capsule on the Voyager. There’s a disc — basically a metal record album — and it contains greetings from Earth in many languages, some music, and photographs of people, and Earth, and all sorts of fun things like that. It was Carl Sagan’s idea. So, there’s a record behind the panel pictured below, and this metal panel you see is actually the record player. Etched onto the metal are the instructions for using the record player. Their thinking was that the instructions would use the universal language of math and physics. Okay, so I’m from Earth, and I know how to use a record player — and I still don’t have a clue what these instructions are telling me to do. What’s that thing at roughly 4 o’clock? Is that the flag of Japan? Is this a Japanese record player? What’s that thing at 8 o’clock? It’s pretty and all, but I’m baffled. Imagine how the aliens will feel.
Here’s one of the many models.
Here’s a rover model.
No disassemble! Number 5 is alive! Oh, you wouldn’t believe the hijinx.
This building housed the JPL control room. We were taken to see it, but were not allowed to photograph it.
Why does the JPL need this big commercial-looking poster on its building — especially if the tour doesn’t stop there? I want to go skating at the Robo-Dome! (It must be a roller skating rink, right?)
The tour ended in the building where they have a duplicate of the Mars rovers. This is where they test things before they send commands to the real rover on, well, Mars. Or… at least that’s what they claim. Maybe, just maybe, all of the pictures we’ve seen from the rovers were taken right here!
The JPL is a fun tour. If you’re going to be in LA, and you know several months in advance, make a reservation. It can take a few months to get through the wait list, but it’s worth it. Maybe when you’re there, they’ll let you roller skate with the robots.