Visitors ‘dare mighty things’ at Explore JPL event
PASADENA, Calif. — On a 177-acre (∼72 hectares) campus built into a mountainside, engineers and flight controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) offered their time to provide an experience for the public. For many, the Explore JPL event, which occurred on May 20–21, 2017, was a rare opportunity to visit the facilities that build and control spacecraft like Cassini, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, and the Curiosity Mars rover.
Navigating around the JPL campus was made simple with Disney-like roped lines as well as “off-limits” tape. Hard copy maps were also provided outlining where events could be visited, along with a map on the Internet made available for real-time feedback, such as finding out an event’s current wait time. The sold-out event, however, caused cell-phone towers to experience moments of overcapacity preventing the website from responding at various times – a real testament to the sheer number of visitors.
The first tent encountered by visitors presented numerous rovers for visual consumption. A full-scale model of the golf-cart-size Mars Exploration Rover (two, Spirit and Opportunity, were sent to the Red Planet in 2003 with Opportunity still active today) was present along with two modified versions of the 2012 Curiosity rover to provide an accurate representation of the Mini Cooper-size vehicle and the rocker-bogie suspension design. Next to these vehicle-sized rovers was a model of the tiny microwave oven-size Sojourner rover. The real one landed on the Red Planet in 1997 as part of the Pathfinder mission. Visitors were presented with facts and details about all of the hardware.
Fabrication facilities demonstrated welding techniques utilized in the construction of various projects. Water jet fabrication hardware, 3-D printing environments with numerous samples of intricately designed models, and even landers that provided an example of the work executed on far away worlds were presented. Question and answer sessions allowed visitors to engage with technicians one-on-one.
Interactive environments, such as one with robotic technologies, gave children hands-on experiences at tables filled with sample hardware. An asteroid simulation tent that captured children physically jumping provided real-time motion physics mirrored on a large screen with 8-bit-like graphics seen on an accurately modeled, low gravity asteroid.
The Space Flight Operations Facility (SFOF) was also available for public viewing. This location is where all of JPL’s missions are controlled and is also the location where all data collected by the Deep Space Network – the largest scientific communications system in the world – is routed.
It was because of this former JPL Director Charles Elachi that the room has been described, since 2012, to be “The Center of the Universe” – with uplinks and downlinks for missions from Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, and more, all being transferred through that room.
Since then, a plaque was placed in the middle of the room with that phrase inscribed along with “Dare Mighty Things”, which was part of a motivational quote from Teddy Roosevelt in 1899.
Also in the room were monitoring presentations and various disciplines being demonstrated. Often sited were references to the film The Martian, which appeared to heighten the public’s awareness of JPL.
Tickets for this event were sold out. While JPL frequently hosts events like this, the NASA facility has not yet announced the next one. However, the next public event will be on Tuesday, May 23, and will be the premiere screening of To the Rescue – a 60-minute documentary about the historic JPL missions of the 1990s. The film will start at 7:30 p.m. PDT at Caltech’s Beckman auditorium. Admission is free on a first-come, first served basis.
Jerome Strach has worked within the Silicon Valley community for 20 years including software entertainment and film. Along with experience in software engineering, quality assurance, and middle management, he has long been a fan of aerospace and entities within that industry. A voracious reader, a model builder, and student of photography and flight training, most of his spare time can be found focused on launch events and technology advancements including custom mobile app development. Best memory as a child is building and flying Estes rockets with my father. @Romn8tr