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Visit to JPL (part 3)

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And so our tour of JPL drew to a close. Having already seen such wonders as the “High Bay” – with MSL inside – and met Steve Squyres, it was hard to imagine what else we would see and do, but there were still some treats and surprises left.

First stop, the JPL Gift Shop! How can I describe what it’s like..? Well, imagine if Carrie and the rest of the gals from “Sex In The City” were space geeks… the JPL gift shop would be their mecca. Inside the starry-eyed browser finds rack after rack of printed shirts; shelves groaning under the weight of books, DVDs and models; box after box of badges (or “pins” as they’re called in the US), cloth patches, pens, pencils, erasers… well, you get the idea, I’m sure.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – that I filled a supermarket trolley with t-shirts, sweatshirts, baseball caps, pens, dvds and a gazillion other things – but actually I was very, VERY good in here; although I could happily have whipped out my credit card and gone as mad as Victoria Beckham in a branch of “Don’t Need It But I’ll Buy it Anyway” I didn’t buy anything at all. Yes, you read that correctly, I bought nothing. Oh sure, part of me wanted a sweatshirt or a t-shirt, but I just thought “What’s the point?” After all, I’d just been given a copy of a book on Sojourner, signed by the person who wrote it; I’d just seen the next rover to go to Mars; I’d just met Steve Squyres; a couple of months earlier I’d been given MER badges by Scott and Sharon when they visited the UK. And now I was walking around JPL, in the blinding Californian sunshine, with my better half… I just didn’t feel the need to buy something just for the sake of it, if that makes sense. It just felt, I don’t know, greedy somehow…

So, against all the odds I left the JPL gift shop empty-handed, and we continued on our way to the next stop on our tour – JPL’s Mission Control itself, the “Space Flight Operations Facility”, pausing briefly en-route for another quick chat with Steve Squyres who just happened to be going our way…

If JPL has a “nerve centre”, this is it. It is the Hallowed Hall of all its hallowed halls.

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(pic: NASA)

This huge room, with its countless computer and TV screens, large and small, pastel-coloured panels and work stations and subdued lighting is where technicians, engineers and scientists sit monitoring the signals that come hissing back to Earth carrying messages, data and images. It is of here that, for as long as I can remember, I have watched video footage and TV pictures of men and women staring intently at flickering monitors, concentrating on the data beamed from the many spaceprobes that are scattered across our solar system like bees flitting across a field of wild flowers. I’ve wanted to see it in person since I was knee high to R2D2.

And it didn’t disappoint.

First impression: it’s big. Very big. Very tall, very high, actually. I felt dwarfed by it and by the concentration of technology within it. My next impresion was one of calmness: no-one rushes there, or makes a noise, or draws attention to themselves. They just sit in their chair, doing what they’re supposed to do, eyes flicking from screen to keyboard to manual and back again. At the front of the room – to the right of a smaller screen which is essentially a large clock, displaying the time VERY accurately – are several large – and by “large” of course I mean Hollywood “OMG! Look at the size of THAT!” large – screens, displaying various graphics and images. And what’s on them? Well, if you’ve ever seen a sci-fi movie like ARMAGEDDON or DEEP IMPACT, where “NASA scientists” are working away frantically to prevent a disaster of sonme kind, you’ll have seen them working at and looking at monitors that are ablaze with hi-tech computer graphics: insanely spinning spheres joined by bright, vividly-coloured flourescent lines; crazily whirling and twirling CGI icons and logos; pictures of planets and rockets that zoom in and out, in and out with migraine-inducing speed…

The truth is rather different. Some of them are very… well, to be honest, boring to look at, at least to an outsider, I’m sure they’re fascinating and useful to the people who work there. They just show what look like bar charts and strips of colour. They’re essentially timeline displays, electronic wall planners if you like, showing where the various probes are, what they’re doing, stuff like that.  The sort of thing that they love splashing over a double page spread in the ESA Bulletin.

And as I said, there’s no-one with the week-old stubble of an under-incredible-strain insomniac rushing about in a sweat-stained shirt, chewing on a cigar and muttering “Goddamn!” every time they read a display; everyone is very cool and calm, just getting on with getting on. But that doesn’t take away any of the romance or significance of the place for a lifelong space geek like me, it just made it feel even more like a church or a cathedral. There was a feeling of great power held in check there, almost as if mighty engines were throbbing away miles beneath the floor, so far away that all we could feel was a hint, a trace of a tremble in the ground under our feet as we stood there, drinking in the view.

Over to the left, another room, much smaller, unoccupied, much more brightly lit than the main control room and coloured grey and blue. I recognised it instantly as the “Flight Control Room”, the room where Phoenix’s landing had been monitored and controlled back in May. Back then, of course, it had been bustling and busy, full of techs and scientists in very neat-looking polo shirts, who had been very cool, calm and collected during EDL but had then, understandably, launched into the air when word came back that Phoenix had set down safely on the surface of Mars. Now it was empty, abandoned, and so it will remain probably until Mars Science Laboratory begins its entry, descent and landing in a year or so’s time… It was fascinating looking inside and wondering what it must be like to sit at one of those desks during a mission, watching data coming in on your screen, following the progress of a spacecraft up close and personal at the same time as the rest of the world is watching you on the internet, looking out for the slightest twitch or blink that might tell them that Something Was Wrong…

Back out into the blazing sunshine, and time for something to eat at the JPL canteen, a suitably huge burger and fries of course! And while we were sat there, talking to Scott and Veronica about who and what we had seen so far, who should wander past – and stop to say hello – but another Heroic Martian Explorer, Mark Adler…!

By now time was getting on, and our tour was drawing to an end. But there was still time for one more treat – an encounter with a full scale model of the Phoenix lander.

Phoenix had, you’ll remember, “died” shortly before we set off for the US, and one of my greatest fears prior to getting on the plane at Heathrow was that while we were en-route one of the MER rovers would die while we were flying to the US and we would arrive at JPL to find the whole place in mourning. Luckily, that wasn’t what happened- both rovers were still alive and kicking up dust when we got there. But Phoenix had been beaten by the martian environment and weather a couple of weeks before we flew out, and there was still something of an air of sadness lingering around the mission whenever it was talked about, as if people were finding it hard to let go and say goodbye, so I had been wondering what kind of presence Phoenix would have at JPL. Well, it’s “presence” was in the form of a beautifully-crafted, full scale model on display in the foyer of one of the facility’s buildings.

Many people believe that Phoenix wasn’t “a JPL mission”, but that’s not the case. Phoenix WAS a JPL mission. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory had full mission management and full responsibility for the lander’s success or its lack of success.  (In fact, JPL has two roles on every Mars mission. It manages the individidual mission, and it also manages the overall Mars Exploration Program for NASA.) Not many people know that JPL built and operated the Phoenix surface operations control room in Tucson, which meant that many JPL employees moved TO Tucson to operate the spacecraft from there. So, Phoenix very definitely was a JPL mission, and it is very fitting that there’s an appropriate tribute to it in Pasadena.

So… in through the doors, and there it was… Phoenix, cordoned off from too-close onlookers by a security ribbon, and with a backdrop of a martian scene and info panels…

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With sunlight streaming in through the window the model lander seemed to glow, golden highlights flashing and sparking all over it. I walked over to it, right up to the tape, and took a long, long look. It really was a thing of beauty, the end product of a lot of work. Accurate in every detail, faithful to the original, standing next to the model was like standing next to Phoenix for real…

Seeing and standing next to that beautifully-crafted model really did bring home a) how big it is, b) how fragile-looking it is, and c) how aesthetically beautiful it is. With those big dragonfly wings it really did look like a robot insect of some kind, more than any other spacecraft I’ve ever seen. The robot arm looked too thin and fragile to even be able to move its own weight, never mind scratch and scrape away at the frigid surface of Mars…

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…and all the antennae, aerials and struts on the top looked like they’d snap off if I leaned forward over the ribbon slightly and blew on them… but it all worked on Mars, wonderfully, and looking at that model gave me a new appreciation of just how successful the mission was.

As I stared at the model more people poured into the foyer, many of them fanning themselves. It was hot at JPL that afternoon, very hot in fact, with lots of people walking around in shirtsleeves and sweating in the bright Californian sunlight. Inside the hall where the Phoenix model stood, surrounded by fascinated and respectful onlookers, it was still very warm despite being air-conditioned, and felt like a hot summer’s day in the UK to this travelling Brit! It was odd to stand there looking at the model and comparing it with what the real thing was going through at that moment. I knew Phoenix was still standing there, on the floor of Green Valley, probably surrounded by frost-encrusted rocks, with its solar panels coated in a slowly-thickening crust of tinkling, twinkling ice crystals too… the sky above Phoenix would darken quickly now after a very short day, and any winds that wafted across its deck would be carrying with them stinging ice crystals and flakes of snow… the temperature had plunged by then too, and I knew that if I was to magically transport myself to its side Phoenix’s landing site would have felt more like Narnia in the depths of the Snow Queen’s deepest winter to me than the Arctic tundra it so closely resembles in those landing day photos…

It was quite hard to drag myself away from that model, but I had to. And yes, before I turned my back on it I said my own whispered, personal “Goodbye… and thank you” to the real Phoenix that had given me – and space enthusiasts all around the world – so much wonder during its brief, mayfly life on Mars…

Next: Part four… final reflections on JPL…

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2 Responses

  1. […] Part three… the end of our tour, and a personal, fond farewell to Phoenix… Possibly related posts: […]

  2. polo shirts are very stylish and very comfortable to wear during hot and humid weather ”

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