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Visit to JPL (part 1)

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It’s hard to believe that a week – more, actually! – has passed since I visited JPL. Already it seems like a lifetime ago. I look at the photos on my computer, pick up the “Phoenix” lanyard I was given to fit to my Visitors Badge, and look through the signed book I was given as a gift there, and, well, it’s a cliche, but it really does seem like a dream. I went to and walked through places I’ve seen for years on TV and on movies; met people I’ve seen on TV documentaries and YouTube clips; talked with men and women I’ve respected or even, to be honest, idolised for years… I was mere feet away from the next rover to go to Mars… That’s the stuff dreams are made of, right there.

To re-cap, I was invited to JPL by the head of JPL itself, Charles Elachi. One unforgettable day over a year ago he emailed me, saying he liked my writing, and appreciated my support for JPL and NASA, and my work as an Outreach Educator, and said that if I was ever in California he would be happy to arrange for me to be given a tour of the facility. After my initial “Okay, who is this REALLY?!” reaction had worn off I thanked him for his offer and said I would certainly accept it at some point in the future. That point didn’t arrive until last week, when a combination of things finally meant we were able to combine a JPL visit with a short stay with my great friends Chris and Peggy, who live in California too, and so on Mon May 17th Stella and I found ourselves walking beneath a blazing, skin-pricklingly hot Pasadenan Sun into the reception area of JPL, handing over our Passports for checking, signing a great sheaf of forms, looping visitor badges around our necks and setting off on a once-in-a-lifetime tour of what is almost certainly “mecca” for lifelong space geeks enthusiasts like myself…

Our tour guide was none other than Veronica McGregor, head of JPL media relations and probably best known now as “the voice of Phoenix” via the mega-successful Twitter page she ran during that mission, and as she led us first into the small “museum” that JPL has I was already feeling the hairs on the back of my neck standing up just by virtue of being there. Beyond the darkened windows of the museum was the “patio” of JPL, a leafy oasis area in the centre of all the facility’s towers and blocks of Sun-bleached concrete and glass I recognised from almost every solar system themed every space-related “Horizon” or TV special I’d ever watched. Here was a wall where I’d seen Carl Sagan sitting on during an episode of COSMOS; there was a bench I’d seen Steve Squyres interviewed on in another programme; over there, beneath the trees, was a low wall I’d seen Peter Smith sitting on just months ago, enthusing about Phoenix’s imminent landing… memories everywhere, wonderful memories. And I was there, seeing, walking around, The Real Thing. Unbelievable…

Inside the ‘Museum’, lots of models of some of what I guess could be called “JPL’s Greatest Hits”. Appropriately for a self-confessed Mars Rover Hugger, the first thing I saw after walking through the door was a full scale model of one of the MERs. I’d seen a model like it before, in a museum in Newcastle, but that was a poor relation to this official one. This model was exquisitely detailed and accurate in every way, and looked ready, willing and eager to gun its engines, break through its tape crowd barrier and head off outside to roll across and around the tree-shaded gardens to study the rocks and dirt baking in the sunshine. Something about it looked wrong tho, and it took me a few moments to figure out what it was… then it hit me. It was CLEAN. I was so used to seeing images of Spirit and Oppy covered in dust, looking like someone has emptied a full vacuum bag of orange dust over them, that a clean rover, with polished, perfectly reflective solar panels on its back, looked wrong. Looking at that model how I wished I could go to Mars and brush off the dust-covered, power-starved rovers there, returning them to the same fresh-off-the-showroom-floor state… 😦

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The rest of the Museum was fascinating – a life-size model of Galileo (complete with damaged comms dish) hung from the ceiling, and other models of Viking, Pathfinder and Explorer 1 were all gazed at and appreciated, but the MER model called me back, several times, like a mermaid singing out a siren song to a passing ship, and I couldn’t stop myself from walking back to it to just, well, look at it. After almost 5 years on Mars those two rovers have – as many of you will know – become a huge part of my life, and the chance to get close to even just a realistic model of one was magical.

Little did I know then just how much closer I would get – and how much more magical things would get – later in the day…

Next stop – after a short walk across the hot flagstones – was the famous von Karman Auditorium. This was quite a moment. This was my first look inside a real “hallowed hall” I’d seen on TV – the room where the world’s media has gathered to hear updates after successful (and some not so successful) spaceprobe landings and encounters for many, many years.

It was quite dark at first, with subdued lighting, so it had the atmosphere of a church, or an empty theatre waiting to burst into life again, and I couldn’t help slowing down and walking quietly as I entered. To my left, scale models of MRO and Voyager; to my right, a model of Cassini, complete with a brightly polished golden discuss attached to it – the Huygens probe. Between them, at the front of countless rows of (rather plain and ordinarly looking!) chairs, The Stage, the stage where countless panels of bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived scientists and engineers have Faced The Press after the conclusion of their own particular dream. I stood at the back of the room remembering press conferences during the Voyager missions, the Pathfinder mission and, more recently, of course, the MER, CASSINI and Phoenix missions. How many times had I seen this place on my TV, or on my computer monitor, watching a JPL media event? I had no idea. Probably hundreds of times. Possibly even thousands. I felt like I was in a temple of some sort, at least just for a few moments…

Then another feeling washed over me – gratitude. Gratitude for JPL and NASA’s dedication to allowing people like me to follow their missions so fully and openly. I had never been in that room before, but I felt like I had, having seen it so many times before. The briefings, conferences and reports that had been held in this room had, literally, helped shape my life by feeding my fascination with space and space exploration. Quite humbling.

Just as the MER model had called out to me, so did the model of one of the Voyager probes, so I padded over to it, beside the stage at the front of the Auditorium – just as the house lights came up. Perfect timing. Up close it looked even more impressive – sleek but practical, beautiful but functional, a truly classic, timeless design. And somehow, somehow, even though I soooo wanted to, I resisted the urge to turn into Captain Kirk, to bend down, reach out and brush imaginary dirt and grime off its nameplate and whisper “Voyager..!” as I realised what the planet-gobbling “V’Ger” actually was… 😉

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Standing there it was impossible not to imagine what press conferences will be held there in years to come. In a year or so’s time, reporters will sit on those chairs and hear news of the fate of the Mars Science Laboratory after its landing; in 20Whenever they’ll assemble again to watch footage of a Mars lander gathering samples of martian rock and stowing them in a small rocket capsule for return to Earth; in perhaps a hundred years time, in that very same Auditorium, reporters and broadcasters will gaze breathlessly at a screen showing the first close-up images of the surface of an extra-solar planet, taken by Mankind’s first interstellar probe…

How I envy them.

Reluctantly I turned my back on the bright lights, hard-looing seats and dark drapes of the Auditorium and headed back out into the blinding sunshine, to walk across the way to the main blocks of buildings. Our next stop was the In Situ Lab (the indoor “Mars yard”), a small, hangar-like room where engineering models of the MER Mars rovers have been put through their paces for the past four years, driving slowly across a simulated martian landscape of brick red dust and cobblestones. We had hoped to see one of the model MERs driving in there, but alas, the room was empty, the doors flung wide open, and no-one and nothing in sight. Looking down on it was like staring at a deserted beach.

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In fact, the MER model had just been removed to make way for the model of the next rover to go to Mars, the bigger and badder Mars Science Laboratory, but that hadn’t arrived yet, so our visit was a victim of bad timing, coming exactly inbetween two missions. Disappointing, yes, but it was still interesting to look down from the gallery and see the facility for real, having seen it so many times on TV in the past.

So, back out into the bright sunshine again, and a short but heart-pumping hike up and down JPL’s San Francisco-like hills to reach our next destination, and to fulfill one of my lifelong ambitions.

If there’s a temple of space exploration for space enthusiasts like me to worship at, it is the High Bay – or to give it its full title, the “Spacecraft Assembly Facility 179” – at JPL. It is in here that the spaceprobes we have followed since our childhoods are assembled, tested and worked on. But this is a temple unlike any other. Under the relentless glare of banks of spotlights, everything gleams and shines as if made of jewels or precious metals; the air is scrubbed and purified and sterilised to within an inch of its life; the priests and acolytes don’t wear cloth robes, chains or beads, but equally-sterile white “bunny suits”, bootees and gloves; the altars are covered not in prayer books and chalices, but racks of high-tech equipment, instruments and computers.

Yes, if planet Earth has a Space Cathedral, the High Bay at JPL is it.

…and after walking up some stairs, down a corridor, and walking through an unremarkable-looking door, I was suddenly staring down into it.

Or rather, at what appeared to be a large, captured UFO, suspended inside an intricate-looking mechanism of struts, beams and gears that looked like the cradle mount for some huge telescope, at the far end of the hangar…

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I almost lost it at that moment, because as I walked slowly along the observation gallery’s carpeted floor it hit me like a slap across the face what I was actually seeing. The “ufo” was in fact the Mars Science Laboratory rover – or rather, the rover tucked away safely inside its protective backshell and heatshield.

(… cue theme from “2001 A Space Odyssey” in my head…)

Oh… my…. god…. that’s it… that’s IT… THAT’S going to Mars… 

I walked slowly over towards the window then, feeling very much like a dirt-encrusted peasant farm worker who has just walked into a cathedral, or the Great Hall at Camelot…

Look at that… it’s real, it’s actually real… and I’m actually here

I leant my forhead against the glass of the Gallery window, staring down at the tiny white figures clustered around the probe, drinking in the view, marvelling at it. The rover itself was out of view, but somehow that didn’t matter; I knew it was there, just metres away from me, and it almost felt like it was sleeping, or hibernating, inside its protective covering. The backshell and heatshield looked huge, just huge, especially with several bunny-suited figures standing beneath and around it, and it was hard to imagine how something that big could be sent to Mars…

And then another slap-across-the-face realisation:

The next time I see that will be on HiRISE images, when it’s landed on Mars…

I’m not sure how long I stood there, rooted to the spot. Five minutes? ten? I have no idea. I just know I didn’t want to leave, not ever. I wanted to stay there and wait until MSL emerged from its protective coccoon and stood on the floor on its huge wheels, surveying the ground around it. I wanted to stay there until MSL was complete, Good To Go, fitted with everything it needs to go boldly to Mars and learn more about it. I wanted to stay there, in the Gallery, and wait until MSL was sealed up inside its protective coccoon again, the great doors opened, and the rover was taken out on the penultimate leg of its long, long journey to Barsoom…

But I couldn’t, so after posing for some photos for and with Stella, and with one last, lingering look I said my farewells to MSL, turned away from the glass, and, after stopping briefly to look at a detailed model of the rover standing on the rocky surface of Mars, left the Gallery.

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Part two…

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3 Responses

  1. Hello Stuart Atkinson,

    I read this today, our USA National Holiday of Thanksgiving and your words inspire and remind me how thankful I am to be working at JPL myself. Very well done piece that show the excitement and enthusiasm for what we do. I too share the spirit and idealize the people and the facility.

    When I was in my early 20’s I watched Cosmos with Carl Segan hosting. There were no VCR for the public at the time so I used cassette tapes to recorded the audio and would listen to those tapes over and over. Long story short, it took me years but I finally was hired at JPL and low and behold I got to have a heart to heart talk with Carl Segan in that very same mall area. For about an hour, I told him my story and with a tear on his cheek he shook my hand and thanked me for following my dream, that he inspired. It meant a lot to him at the time.

    Today there are so many heroes that work there that are never seen on NBC or CNN. People working in the background doing things that no one has ever done before. We are a “learning organization” because there is no road maps for what JPL does.

    There are people that critiize every decision we make, nit pic all the way, but one post like yours, one view you share, one passion that you give to others is what we feel and keeps us working hard.

    I know you are UK, but happy Thanksgiving, and thank you for your wonderful post.

    Charles White
    JPL 21.642 years

  2. Yeah, JPL’s high bay has got to be one of the most historical places. I wonder if somewhere someone has a set of photos of all the spacecraft that have been through there on their way to so many far-out places.

    The last time I was there (back in the 80s), it was the Galileo orbiter sitting in there and, yeah, I couldn’t help thinking, wow, that thing is going to Jupiter!

    I also couldn’t help thinking, Man, that spacecraft is bigger than I thought!

  3. beautiful advice and sharing,I will buy one this fantastic jeans for me .thanks

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