I recently returned from Southern California and the two-day NASA Social event #DSN50.
#DSN50 was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Deep Space Network, and as part of the event I was lucky enough to tour both JPL in Pasadena and the Goldstone desert facility that has a number of large antennas on-site.
It was awesome. And eye-opening.
At this point, the court-appointed lawyers have instructed me to point new readers to my blog site banner. Particularly, the bit mentioning mercury. And no, I’m not talking about the Mercury program.
Just so your expectations of accuracy are properly calibrated.
Besides, accuracy is overrated.
Unless you work at JPL, in which case, carry on, please.
On the flight down, I looked out my window to see this amazing sight:
At first, I took this as a good omen for the trip ahead. But then I wondered, what if it’s a Strategic Defense Initiative targeting laser locked onto our plane?
I attempted to alert the flight crew to this potential threat, but all my efforts led to was detention upon landing at Burbank airport.
Fortunately, a check of my psychiatric history led to all charges being dropped, and I was released in time to still attend the celebratory events at JPL.
After registering, we were guided to the JPL control room. I got to sit in the very room where the Curiosity rover (among other missions) was tracked and, well, controlled.
It was a cool feeling, but when I started powering up the computer in front of me and pressing buttons, I was pulled aside and given a stern talking to about firing attitude adjusters on the New Horizons probe.
We were part of a broadcast for NASA TV, which coincidentally was also celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Deep Space Network.
It was a huge production, seemingly lavish in its scale (Near-Earth Object Radar Scientist Marina Brozovic brought asteroids to show!), but it turns out they keep the costs down by paying everyone with peanuts.
During filming, I noticed that the cameras didn’t stay on me. In fact, they were hardly ever on me.
As the star of the show, I couldn’t understand this. When I flagged down the host, she gave me a strange look and then patiently explained to me that yes, I was the star, but in order to protect the delicate egos of the JPL staff and other attendees, they had to make it look like I was an incidental part of the production.
This made sense, and I resigned myself to relative obscurity during the rest of the show, even forgoing the song and dance number I’d planned for the end.
You guys really missed out on that one, let me tell you.
But even without my performance, it was a fascinating program to watch, and I suspect it retains its fascination even when not watched live and in person, but through a TV screen. So I recommend you check it out:
Another benefit of the trip was a journey to the center of the Universe. At first, I was worried – my flight home was the next day – but the trip was really short.
Did you know the center of the Universe is in Pasadena? I didn’t, but based on how people drive there, I’m guessing the native Pasadenians do.
I’ll be honest. I thought the center of the Universe would be more … space-y … and less LCD panel-y. But I’m not a scientist.
Not since they revoked my license, anyway.
After the broadcast, there was a photo-op with NASA celebrity Bobak Ferdowsi, otherwise known as the NASA Mohawk Guy.
After I photobombed Bobak’s portraiture session, I was escorted outside for the tour of other sites at JPL.
Those other sites consisted of a lot of cool places, including the Mars Yard, the Spacecraft Assembly Facility, and the JPL Museum.
But before I talk about those, I want to talk about stairs.
There are a lot of stairs at JPL.
Now if you listen to the budget-hawkish NASA naysayers, you’d think everyone at JPL tooled around on their own personal rover.
Let me put that rumor to rest right now. I only saw one person riding a rover between office buildings, and frankly, given the anti-psychotic drugs the Burbank airport police administered during my detention, it is entirely possible I imagined that.
Besides, the rovers are too big to fit in most of the hallways.
But to support the more pedestrian mode of travel in use at JPL, there are stairs galore.
What impressed me most are the stairs currently under development at JPL.
Oh, to be sure, there are old stairs, gathering dust and waiting for retrofits and upgrades, but JPL also has new stairs.
Sadly, as they are still under development, I was not allowed to photograph any of these new-fangled modes of ascent and descent.
In fact, prior to rounding one corner, we were all required to put on blindfolds so we couldn’t see a particularly advanced prototype we needed to use to get to the JPL Museum.
But if the smooth, effortless nature of my traversal of those particular steps is any indication, in the future people will take the stairs in lieu of seeing a therapist, and ski lifts everywhere will be replaced with these springy, refreshing wonders.
I look forward to the day I can tell my grandchildren (assuming I have any and the inevitable restraining orders are lifted) that I was there, at JPL, at the beginning of the Staircase Renaissance.
I wish I could say more, but the NDA I signed is quite explicit about the painful consequences if I let slip any more information.
The Mars Yard was a lot less Mars-like than I expected. For one thing, there was air there. Breathable air. Now I may have had my scientist card pulled out of my hands and cut up right in front of me, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t much air on Mars.
And there was way more gravity in the Mars Yard than you’d find on Mars.
In fact, it was pretty close to Earth gravity.
Now you can’t try a new maneuver on a Mars rover without testing it first. What if something goes wrong? You can hardly call roadside assistance and ask for a tow truck to come over and right an overturned Mars rover.
I asked. You can’t.
You want to test it on a sibling rover that you aren’t worried about wrecking.
So clearly the only way to truly test how well a new maneuver will work is to send a duplicate rover to Mars and try your routines out on that one first.
When I asked for confirmation on this, the guide sighed and then explained that while NASA had considered this option, in the end it was deemed too expensive and they decided to make do with the less-than-ideal mock-up here on Earth.
This, of course, was little consolation to the poor test rover who had her heart set on going to Mars. I did my best not to bring up the subject in her presence.
Our JPL hosts, under the command of the robot rover sentries suddenly popping up all over the campus, next took us to the SAF.
No, not a safe place to hide from the malevolent rovers. The Spacecraft Assembly Facility. Basically, a giant cleanroom where they make new spacecraft and robots to crush the human uprising.
Sadly, the latest satellite being built, called SMAP and supposedly intended to do climate study work, had been whisked behind the walls of a electromagnetically sealed inner chamber in the SAF as part of testing or some such.
I’m no fool. The roving rovers didn’t want us to see the latest killbot, no doubt. So it goes.
During a lull in the rover patrols, we furtively made our way to the last stop on our tour: the JPL Museum (and on the way used those magical, mystery stairs that I will dream about for the rest of my life).
There I was treated to an amazing interactive exhibit the JPL employees affectionately call Randii Wessen.
This life-like automaton engaged the audience, taking questions and keeping our egos in check by informing us that, kilogram for kilogram (damn JPL and their insistence on metric!), there is more life in the form of microbes in the rocks under the surface than all the life above ground combined.
This was my first moment of feeling puny and insignificant. The second moment came the next day, at Goldstone.
In all seriousness, it was an awesome day spent surrounded by smart, amazing, and really cool people, both my fellow guests and the JPL staff. Truly, a once-in-a-lifetime experience I will never forget.
Unless I hit my head and get amnesia.
That would really suck.
Up next in Part 2: The Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex or What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?