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JPL Visit (Part 4 of 4)

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After drooling over Phoenix our visit to JPL was at an end. Time to say a final, grudging goodbye to Scott, who had given up so much of his time to show us around, collect our things and say a final and very, very grateful farewell to Veronica – who had also been so generous with her time and made sure we had seen so many amazing things – before finally leaving JPL and heading for Burbank airport for our connecting flight to San Francisco… how that went is a story for another time..!

Looking back on it now, sitting here looking out the window at a snow-covered Kendal, remembering the blistering heat of JPL on that magical Monday, I find myself struggling slightly to find the right words to describe what an amazing experience it was and how much it meant to me. As I said earlier, this was a place I’ve grown up with, even though I’d never been there. This was a place I’d walked around courtesy of tv documentaries and movies, books and magazines, yet never seen with my own eyes. So the chance to walk the same halls and paths walked by many of the giants of space exploration was a true gift, and one I’ll always be grateful for. Even if I go back there again a dozen more times therell never be another “first time”, and I came away with a camera full of (I think!) great images, and a head full of wonderful memories.

I also came away with the unshakeable mental image that JPL is essentially Starfleet Academy in waiting. Now, I’m sure I heard some groans there, and that’s ok; it sounds like a very cheesy or geeky thing to say, an easy reference to make taken straight from Page 1 of the bestselling Big Book Of NASA Cliches, but it is one million percent true. I mean, come on, what else would you compare it to? Like Starfleet Academy, JPL is a  sprawling, campus-like complex where literally thousands of people live, breathe and eat space exploration; where you can see spacecraft being designed, operated and even built; where people walk around almost giddy with the excitement and drama of exploring space, and where you can walk into a darkened room full of humming computers and flickering monitors and get a real sense of mankind’s presence and ambition and destiny stretching out into the solar system. The only thing missing is the Golden Gate Bridge shining in the distance…

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It is to JPL where the Star Wars and Star Trek worshipping space enthusiasts and geeks of the past were drawn to after school, and are now responsible for controlling and ensuring the survival of real multi-billion dollar spacecraft scattered across the solar system, and it is JPL where the young physicists and astronomers of today’s school Science Clubs will be turned into the professional planetary explorers of the next generation.  

The people at JPL are special, of that I have no doubt. Not just because they are fantastically hard working, dedicated and open about what they do, but because what they do every day is Important. Oh, politicians arrogantly think they shape the future, but they only help shape the short term future. The techs, engineers, programmers and scientists at JPL, even if they have never thought of it this way, are literally shaping the future destiny and even the future evolution of our species, of mankind: through their efforts to explore the rock-strewn surface of Mars, the fractured, icy landscapes of Europa and the tholin-smothered plains of Titan they will eventually make mankind a multi-planet species. And although they might stare at computer monitors during the day, when they clock-off, and night falls over Pasadena and the lands beyond, they still – like space enthusiasts and amateur astronomers the world over – stare at the sky with wonder and awe. They’re not unapproachable boffins with brains the size of planets and egos to match. They’re US.

When I got back to the UK a lot of people, inevitably, asked me what it had been like, and of course I gushed it all out to them. Others enquired, more thoughtfully, about the work and worth of JPL, and asked me, sometimes subtly, other times outright, if, in this modern age of economic crises and terrorism, JPL is important? Is it worth all the money spent on it? Does it contribute to our lives? To answer that question I told them about a an encounter we had during our tour…

As we walked around JPL on that hot, sunny day, we inevitably passed many other visitors. Some were wandering around in small groups, just twos and threes, but others were much larger groups, dozens strong. The largest group we came across was a long, winding snake of kids, perhaps 40 of them, no older than thirteen or fourteen years old I reckoned. Unsurprisingly, having been set free from their hot classroom and taken to a real honest to god space centre, they were laughing and shouting and joking as they bustled along, bags swinging on their shoulders and cameras clutched in their hands, readied for action, all the time herded along by their hard-working teachers. As we passed the group I couldn’t help overhearing a snatch of conversation taking place between one of the teachers and one of their pupils. I can’t remember the exact words, but essentially the teacher was asking the child – a very serious-looking young girl, straight out of a Tim Burton film – what she thought of the place, and the girl was saying that it was impressive, yes, but she was wondering if the money spent on JPL, and on space exploration, was money well spent when there are people going hungry in the world, etc etc.  ( It’s an old debate, of course, but it was unusual to hear the words of doubt and discomfort coming from a child instead of an adult, I’m not used to that. ) The teacher didn’t seem to have a good answer to that question, but I wasn’t too concerned, because I knew that by the time her class had finished its tour, and seen all the things we’d seen, (well, maybe not all of them!) the girl would realise the value of JPL.

She would realise that JPL – that space exploration – makes us all Better. Space exploration teaches us about the universe around us, and our unique place within it. She would realise that exploring space teaches us about Earth, our own planet, and about humanity, too. She would realise that exploring space opens our eyes to the wonder and beauty of Out There, opens our hearts to the joy of exploration, and opens our souls to the grandeur of the cosmos…

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As for the question of whether or not space exploration is worth the cost – of whether or not JPL is worth the cost – I can only hope that the little girl came to realise on her tour, or has since found out for herself, that not a single penny is spent IN SPACE. It is all spent down here, on Earth, basically paying suppliers for for materials, builders for building and wages to everyone else involved in the space program. The way some people talk you’d think that NASA and other space agencies build great big hollow rockets, fill them full of dollar bills or pound coins, then fire them into space for the fun of it, when really the bills and coins are spent on the metals needed to build the rockets, the fuel to propel them and the hardware and software to fly them. Money spent “on space” is actually spent on paying people to bend metal, pour resin, operate and program computers, design cameras, and a million other tasks. Those people then use that money to buy groceries at their local store, meals at their local restaurants and books at their local shop. They use that money to buy clothes for their kids, food for their dog or cat, and petrol to get themselves TO work in the first place. They give back some of that money in taxes, that help pay for the hospitals, schools and infrastructure needed and enjoyed by everyone.

And, of course, the “spin offs” from space exploration are many and varied, and have done nothing less than transfrom life for hundreds of millions of not billions of people.

But in the end, all these discussions and arguments and debates are academic. We’re in space now, exploring, studying and discovering, and unlike the great Chinese trading fleets, our space probes can’t be brought back, and space technology has worked its way so deeply and so totally into our everyday lives that we simply couldn’t abandon space now, it would mean abandoning our modern civilisation. And even though times are hard and money is tight, we will go on exploring space, reaching out further and further, because it’s simply what we do – we explore, pushing at the frontiers and the barriers surrounding us all the time. And JPL is at the forefront of that effort.

I don’t have a crystal ball – if I did I’d have retired on the proceeds of several obscenely-large lottery wins or horse race bets by now! – but I know in my heart that JPL is shaping the future, and that it will be honoured IN that future. In 100 years time, when a Mars Museum has been built in the first large settlement to be established on the Red Planet and all the pieces of hardware sent to Mars have been retrieved, dusted off and put on display there, weak-gravity stretched, pale-skinned native martians and tanned, high-gravity compressed Terran tourists alike will wander the Museum’s halls and pose beside the Viking and Phoenix landers and the Mars Exploration Rovers – just as I posed beside their model replicas at JPL – and feel the same sense of wonder and appreciation that I did…

In 200 years time there’ll be a cloud of hundreds of spaceships, every one packed full of sightseers and historians, travelling alongside each of the Viking and Pioneer probes as they head out of the solar system into into interstellar space, and as they fly close to those ancient robotic space travellers the tourists will see the JPL logo – the letters perhaps faded to a dull tan colour after centuries’ exposure to the harsh environment of space – stencilled on their sides…

And in 1000 years, when the Earth-like planets of the nearest stars have been colonised, on one special night each year the colonists will stand together beneath their alien sky, searching for the tiny, golden pinprick of Sol above their heads, lost in the starfroth. And as they stand there they’ll wonder what it would have been like to have been one of the remarkable men and women who worked at JPL, in their quiet, unremarkable-looking offices and cubicles, tapping away at their computers and staring at their monitors, patiently flying remarkable robots around Jupiter and Saturn and driving robots across Mars, opening up the High Frontier and taking the first steps on humanity’s epic trek into the future.

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A huge thank you goes out to Scott, Sharon, Andy and Paolo for the parts they played in making our tour and our visit so memorable. And a very special thank you to Veronica McGregor, for all her hard work, and for being such a wonderful ambassador for JPL and NASA, too. This is for you guys… “JPL”

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2 Responses

  1. […] Part four… final reflections on JPL… Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Visit to […]

  2. I’m sending the link to this particular post to my SF poetry group. I think then they will appreciate even more how well you speak for those of us who love space exploration. Then they will read about your visit from the beginning with greater understanding and empathy. And not a little envy 🙂

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