90,000 Miles to Me

22,122 • NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Some people get excited about seeing their favorite band in concert, some people get hyped about a day at an amusement park or trips to exotic destinations or meeting a celebrity. 

When my friend told that me his cousin worked at NASA’s Jet Propultion Laboratory and could probably get me a tour, I flipped out. Like, your honey just surprised you with a trip to Paris for Valentine’s Day kind of flipped out.

Yes, I’m a nerd, let’s just get that out of the way.

On top of Valentine’s Day in Paris, this one would be at the five star hotel with a view of the Louvre called, “NASA’s InSight Rover landed on Mars the day before my tour, so everything was decked out in Rover awesomeness for the press!”

Do we have an understanding?

All right. 

To add to my normally high levels of nerdish glee, I’ve just gone through all this recent personal growth in regards to my insecurities around why I didn’t go into science for a career, which I had wanted more than anything, and had experienced great liberation on that front. So my mind was contemplating possible futures in science, or potential science-peripheral endeavors, so this tour held extra meaning for me.

No pressure, though.

Actually, surprisingly, I wasn’t feeling pressure about it, just excitement and fun. I have no idea what direction my life will take when I am ready to settle down from the intensity of this Journey, and for the time being, I am actually okay with the not knowing. A big step for Ms. Overplan-Everything. (We’re getting a divorce. (I get the van.))

And it’s not like I haven’t been to JPL before. I have, several times as a teenager, but things are different now. I am different now.

So on the day of the tour, my long-time friend and his wife (who I adore) drove to Pasadena and met his cousin (who was so cool) and she played tour guide for us for a couple of hours. She took us around to many of the highlights, and I spent the day going “ooh, look at that” and “neato” and “awesome” and “it’s the real thing!” and “how cool is that!

Some of the highlights:

We got to see mission control from the press/visitor observation area above. It is commonly called the Dark Room, and was originally kept dark because the servers were so big that they generated so much heat that they had to keep the lights off. Now it is kept dark to coordinate the time in the room with daylight and darkness on Mars. 

See the clock on the wall? The time is exactly one day, one hour, twenty minutes, and thirty two seconds after InSight landed!

The engineers and scientists who work on the Mars projects have to program the Rovers for the next day’s tasks while the Rovers are “asleep”—nighttime on Mars—so the Rovers can be productive during Mars’ daytime when the solar panels are getting power. Which means the programmers have to be at work here on Earth at whatever hours it is time to work on Mars. Here’s a really good TED Talk about that:

Off to the left, I could see Mission Control for the InSight EDL—entry, descent, and landing—that I watched the day before on the streaming broadcast. Years of planning before launch, two years of space flight to get to Mars, and it all came down to twenty minutes of holding their breath to see if it would land or crash. Spoiler: it landed perfectly!

Mission Control for the InSight EDL

You can watch the replay of the live broadcast of the landing here:

We saw the actual InSight duplicate in the clean room as they tested or fitted or did something with it. All of the Rovers have an exact duplicate here on Earth. This isn’t a model, but a twin of the one that was launched, so that they can test things using the actual equipment, instead of figuring, “well, this should probably work.”

The team was re-creating the current InSight’s landing configuration, as well as they could figure with the limited data they had at this point, to plan what to do next.

Then there was the clean-clean room, where a team was working on building one of the next missions. Everyone in the clean-clean room was wearing “bunny suits.” They are also encouraged not to talk in there any more than necessary, because talking spreads bacterial particles despite wearing surgical masks. I couldn’t tell anyone apart in the white suits and masks.

Up a steep hill was the Mars Yard, a sand and gravel and rock re-creation of the types of terrain the Rovers encounter on Mars. They use the Mars Yard to test out new programs or commands and then send those programs to the Rovers on Mars.

In the “garage” was the actual Curiosity Rover duplicate!

A smaller Rover was roaming around the yard (they are very slow) controlled by two team members who were programming it for a demonstration next week.

The Rovers get a lot of press, but JPL does a lot more than the Rover missions.

For example, aboard a Gulfstream III flying at 41,000 feet, UAVSAR can detect changes in Earth’s land features at the centimeter scale.

So far, it has been put to work studying climate change in the Arctic and examining Earth deformations after major earthquakes and volcanoes. 

Here are a bunch of other current missions JPL is running.

Our tour guide wasn’t one of the scientists or engineers, but the data manager for the Delta-X mission. She builds databases for the team to use and occasionally does web stuff and graphic design work to support the mission. This actually is really exciting to me, to know and see someone who doesn’t have a Masters in engineering or a PhD in physics and still works meaningfully on these projects. 

At this point in my life, I’m not feeling the teenage excitement of going to school for years to hyper-focus on one specialized area of science. I’m interested in so many areas of science that I would not want to narrow it down and then feel trapped by having put years of work and money into a single field. 

But maybe science journalism…interviewing the scientists and asking questions and learning enough about what they’re doing to communicate that in writing…about all sorts of different fields of science…and sharing that with the public so everyone can see a few more facets of the fascinating world we live in as we collectively delve deeper and deeper into it…that just might be right up my alley.

No commitments yet. But I like the idea…

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