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Visit to JPL (part 2)


After the thrill of gazing down at the Mars Science Laboratory under test in the High Bay, we were led into what I will always think of as “The MER Centre”, but is obviously called something else entirely which I can’t remember for the life of me. After entering an elevator and getting out in a rather anonymous-looking white corridor with doors down each side, we were greeted enthusiastically by Mars rover driver – and space mega-enthusiast, Outreach educator and astro-poetry fan – Scott Maxwell, who was going to show us around some of the rooms, offices and facilities involved in the operation of the two Mars Exploration Rovers. ( Meeting up with Scott again was a treat in itself for me; I’d met him earlier in the year when he, along with fellow JPLers Sharon Laubach and Andy Mishkin, was vacationing in the UK. They asked to meet up with me in Kendal, just for a chat and a bit of a get-together, having followed my MER-related writings on the unmannedspaceflight.com forum. Scott amazed me by reciting one of my MER poems in the street when we met, then presenting me with some greatly cherished MER goodies, and we’ve kept in touch since. )

Soon Stella and I were walking along the corridors and taking in the view. It seemed that there was a loooong MER panorama displayed on every wall, printed out in the very highest quality, and it was hard not to just stand in front of each one and stare and stare and stare at it. They were all, of course, images I’ve seen on my own PC screen, countless times, but my screen is, what, 15″ across? and these pictures were maybe SIX FEET LONG! The detail was just stunning, and it was very easy to imagine I was actually looking through the window of a Mars base hab module at a real landscape beyond, the detail was so sharp. In fact, after looking at half a dozen of these I began to feel like I WAS in a Mars hab module; turning every corner presented us with a new landscape to drool over and gaze at – a new screengrab from my dreams and imagination…


Scott was joined soon after by Sharon Laubach, one of the MER mission managers, and the two of them gave us a fantastic tour of the facility there. It was like being shown the bedroom of the most space mad kid ever: there were awards on every shelf, souvenirs and mementoes everywhere, Mars posters and pictures pinned, tacked and stuck onto every wall –


Then, suddenly, on one of the walls I saw something truly amazing – one of my poems, printed out for everyone to see! It will sound ridiculously cheesy, I know, but honestly it almost brought a tear to my eye, because seeing that poem on that wall was proof to me that people Out There, on t’internet, actually read my stuff. It meant that my work is read, and enjoyed, at JPL. Which I knew already, because I’d been told, and it was, after all, the reason I was there in the first place, I guess, but but it was proof. It meant that someone at JPL – a very busy someone, with a hugely responsible job to do – had gone to my blog (in their free time, I’m sure!), or unmannedspaceflight.com, read that poem and liked it enough to save it, print it out and put it up on that wall for others to see. That’s both very flattering and very humbling for me, as a writer; we work away at our keyboards, tap-tapping for hours and hours, and at the end of it all have no idea who – if anyone – is actually reading what we’ve written. But looking at that poem on that wall – cliche alert, cliche alert! – made it all worthwhile… 🙂


Then, to make things even better, I saw ANOTHER of my poems up on ANOTHER wall, which Scott and Sharon posed by for me. Thanks guys! 🙂


Down another corridor, round another corner, past more panoramas and awards and posters, and we were joined by another JPLer, Andy Mishkin. Andy is a very accomplished JPL engineer, and wrote a very successful book about the Sojourner rover that was carried to Mars by the Pathfinder probe in 1997. In contrast to Scott – who is (I don’t think he’ll mind me saying), a very lively, exuberant, always smiling, great galloping puppy of a Mars geek – Andy is very quiet and calm,  reserved I suppose you could say, but he is just as passionate about Mars as everyone else we met there, and meeting him again was a real pleasure. Andy joined us for a group photo (taken by an obliging in-the-right-place-at-the-wrong-time passer by)…


…before we all continued on to an office next to the main MER operations room. That was out of bounds for us, which was fair enough, as we were seeing so many fascinating places anyway, but we still had a peek at it through the window, and were fascinated to see just how calm and quiet it was in there. No manic running about, no ARMAGEDDON- or DEEP IMPACT-like craziness, just men and women sitting at flickering monitors, heads down, working away quietly, keeping what are, in my opinion, NASA’s two most valuable assets alive and kicking on Mars, monitoring their power levels, generally just watching over them like guardian angels. There were decorations in there too – posters, pictures, etc – but it was a much more workmanlike area, and it was easy to see that that was a Serious Place, where Serious Work was being done.

I thought that was It for that room, but no, another treat and surprise was in store. Andy presented me with a gift- a signed copy of his book! Ironically, I had actually ordered a copy of Andy’s book from Amazon the day before flying to the US, because I was really wanting to read it, so the timing was unbelievable. But obviously a copy given by the author was a tremendous gift, so I thanked Andy and asked him to sign it for me. He told me – as I should have guessed – that he already had, so I flipped through to the inscription…

And this was the moment – well, the first moment – I actually wondered if I was really back home in my bed, asleep, dreaming the whole thing, moments before my alarm clock went off and told me it was time to get up and go to work. I have to confess a lump the size of a large meteorite formed in my throat as I ready Andy’s words:

“Your words of verse inspire people from around the world with the exploits of our rovers and mankind’s destiny in space! – Andy”

Wow… if I start trying to explain here how much that meant to me it would sound very sickly very soon, so I’ll just have to trust that people reading this blog will realise how much that dedication means, and leave it at that.

Down another corridor, past/through/into more offices and control rooms, the adventure continued… at one memorable point Scott handed us a model of a MER wheel, which was very enlightening: for the first time I appreciated the size and strength of the things, as I hefted that wheel in my hands. For some reason, never truly explained, it is very emotional for a huge fan of something inanimate – a plane, a train, a Mars rover – to touch or actually hold it or a piece of it, and it was no different for me when I held that MER wheel. I was suddenly transported to Mars, and could see in my mind twelve wheels just like it rolling slowly, so slowly across the dust-covered, rock-strewn surface surface, cracking the smallest stones, driving over the larger ones…

Stella found a different inspiration whilst holding the wheel, which actually illustrates brilliantly how big it is..!



Up another corridor, round another corner… I was starting to feel like a Dr Who assistant!… then I was told to “just go on ahead” for a moment, everyone else would follow me. Trusting, gullible idiot that I am, of course I did as I was told, and just kept walking, not wondering at all why people had been calling people-with-no-names on mobiles earlier, keeping them informed of our progress and route…

Then a familiar figure walked out of a door into the corridor, beaming a huge smile I recognised in a stalled heartbeat. I’d seen that smile, and that face, on TV, dvds, YouTube clips and on the pages of books and magazines and newspapers countless hundreds if not thousands of times. Suddenly I felt like a teenage girl who’d just bumped into her fave boy band member, or a film buff stumbling across their movie idol without warning…

There are maybe only a handful of people in the world who can really imagine how I felt as Steve Squyres walked towards me.


To many people reading this, I realise, Steve Squyres – known simply as “SS” in the MER- and Mars enthusiast community – is Just A Scientiest, or “That guy from the Mars rovers”. To me, and many, many people like me, he’s a hero and, yes, an idol. This is the man who transformed our lives by getting two rovers designed, built and sent to Mars. He is responsible for the two machines that have embedded themselves in our lives like welcome parasites. Every day we go online to see the latest pictures they’ve taken, check how far they’ve driven, review the science they’ve done – and, to be honest, see if they’re still alive. Every day we marvel at what they’ve achieved, and wonder what more they will achieve. Every day we think back to those amazing landings of theirs, in the January of 2004, and feel lumps in our throats as memories come flooding and bouncing back. SS gave us, and the whole world, a new Mars, a modern Mars; a Mars of outcrop-decorated hills; dust-filled craters and crumbling cliffs; a Mars where dust devils whirl and waltz across wide open, Big Country Barsoomian plains; a Mars where tiny beads of heamatite lie scattered across the dusty ground like berries, or seeds. A beautiful Mars, a noble Mars. An Ansell Adams Mars.

A Mars that we now know – KNOW- will one day be a home for the human race.

And he was feet away…

Meeting one of your heroes is always risky. If it goes well you walk away hearing birds singing and feeling ten feet tall and giddily happy. If it goes wrong, if they aren’t the person you have always imagined them to be, if they don’t live up to your expactations, your image of them can shatter like a champagne flute dropped on a tiled floor. I’ve corresponded with Steve before, several times, sent him my poems and received very kind and warm notes back in reply, so I was pretty sure he would be “ok”, but you never know, do you? I mean, it’s easy to fire off a polite, friendly-sounding email, it only takes a second and doesn’t require any personal commitment or warmth. I was quite prepared for Steve to say a quick “Hi”, maybe shake my hand, then continue on his way, no doubt late for a very important meeting somewhere. And that would have been fine, really. I’d have been more than happy with that, and would have felt I’d used up a good few years’ worth of 4 leaf clovers and lucky heather…

But as he walked towards me he was grinning from ear to ear. Then he reached out his hand to shake mine. The dream continued… the alarm clock remained silent.. I was shaking Steve Squyres’ hand…


“Hey! The poetry dude!” he greeted me, warmly.

I’m not kidding, I was THIS close to falling to my knees and wailing, Wayne-like, “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!!” 🙂

That’s it, I thought, he’ll continue on his way now he’s said hello. And would I have been happy with that! But no, he stayed… he leaned back against the wall, and talked to me, about JPL, about the Mars rovers, about the trek Oppy is now making down, way down to Endeavour… and about my poetry. he told me how much he had appreciated me writing my poems, and sending them to him, too, adding that he had particularly enjoyed the poem I sent him about Oppy setting off for her new destination. He was every bit as easy going and enthusiastic as he has always appeared on TV and online, and his passion for Mars, his rovers and space exploration in general was obvious, almost shining from him as we chatted in that corridor. Then things got even better. Steve was indeed pushed for time, but he came with us to a cavernous meeting room, its walls decorated with yet more several-feet-long panoramas, where a shining, glittering full scale model of one of the MERs stands between a great wall of video screens and a “c” of huge wooden desks and very plush-looking chairs. And there we had pictures taken with him, standing beside the MER model. I’m not even going to try to put into words how that felt, I’m just not going to attempt it. Suffice it to say that when this picture was taken of me standing with Stella, next to a MER modfel, with SS just feet away, I was absolutely sure I was dreaming the whole thing, and that I would wake up on the plane to find we were half an hour out of LA and I’d dreamed the whole thing after falling asleep whilst watching a movie…


I guess some people reading this will think “You idiot… it’s just a model of a machine, not even a real rover, and he’s just the guy who helped build it. Why are you so gooey about it?” I don’t know what to say to you, to be honest. I genuinely think “space” is one of those things – like sport, or fishing – that you either get or you don’t. It either sends sheets of flame racing through your veins when you think about it, or it doesn’t. Me, I look at a picture of Mars, taken by a MER, or MRO, and I can actually feel faint. I lose myself in its detail and beauty, follow every contour of the landscape with my eyes. Other people see the same picture and just think “Rocks”. That’s just the way it is. But this visit to JPL – and my meeting with SS, and everyone else there – was important to me, it mattered to me, because I LIVE this stuff. I’ve grown up following the missions of JPL. I’ve lived every one of them since I was about 14. Their successes and failures are the landmarks of my life. I feel a passion for space exploration that goes beyond deep. So to stand there, next to possibly the most accomplished “martian explorer” since Carl Sagan, next to a model of one of the rovers he designed and built, inside JPL itself, having been invited to go there by the JPL Director in thanks for my support for their work… well… if you really can’t imagine what that meant to me, then maybe you should click on the “x” button top right there and go read a different blog, because nothing else I am going to write here will explain it to you.

Next… Part three… the end of our tour, and a personal, fond farewell to Phoenix…


2 Responses

  1. I know how you feel. I felt the same when I met the Project Director of Chandrayaan 1. Some of the most awesome guys are perhaps the most grounded and the most soft spoken and they make you feel quite silly, the way you are reacting etc.

  2. […] Part two… Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)On Mars…Mars ROVER to roam the planet.Old Mars Rovers Learn New Tricks to Kick Off Year FourCh…Ch…Ch…Ch…Changes … water on Mars? […]

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