I have been trying to get to the Jet Propulsion Lab's annual Open House for the last several years, and I have failed miserably. We were out of town. We were in town but sick. Friends were in town who wanted to spend the day outside at the beach instead of inside of Mission Control. Oh, and then there was that time I was 8 months pregnant...
But this year, nothing was keeping me away! The Husband agreed to mind the Child so I could have four (!) uninterrupted hours of geekiness all to myself (while I'm all for exposing my kiddo to science, the Open House isn't really the right place for a tantrum-prone 22 month old). I left her in her father's capable hands, grabbed some graham crackers and OJ for the road, and headed out to La Canada. I figured if I left at 8:30am, I'd be there by 9:15am and have 4 solid hours to explore before returning at the promised time of 2pm to take over baby duty.
Alas, I did not take into account how massively popular this event is. Turns out we're talking 30,000-50,000 visitors popular! And in Southern California, popular = traffic. I was half annoyed that my limited time at the Open House was being cut down as a result of exit ramp gridlock, but half thrilled that an event of this type was generating such interest. Usually only a Lakers game gets Angelenos moving like this.
After I figured out an alternate exit route from the freeway (thank you Google maps) and finally made it inside, I received a map detailing the twenty-two videos, exhibits, activities and buildings open to the public. There's no official guided tour at the Open House - you look at the map and go wherever your space-lovin' heart leads you. I decided to prioritize seeing actual JPL facilities. While I heard that a number of the movies, such as JPL: Up to the Minute, were wonderful, I wanted to see as much of the hardware as possible.
My first stop was #17, "Mobility and Robot Technologies," a display of technology rovers and other robots for current and future missions. My fave was this cute little hopping robot.
Next stop was #15, the Spacecraft Assembly Facility, aka Building 179. This is JPL's largest "clean room," where spacecraft and instruments are assembled and tested before being shipped out. It was cool to see the size of the room and hear about their process for keeping things as sterile as possible.
To note: we were in the observation deck, not in the clean room itself. Those who work in the Assembly Facility must go through a rigorous process to reduce the amount of human "shedding", or exfoliation of skin and hair. This can include shoe cleaning, an "air shower," and wearing a full "bunny suit." While I would have gone through all of that and more (hell, I'm always a fan of a good waxing!) to get down onto the floor, the 30,000 folks or so who come to the Open House weekend constitute just a li'l too big of a crowd for the clean room to handle and still be, well, clean.
As I headed over to my next destination, I started playing "The Voyage: A Mobile Scavenger Hunt." In this interactive game, participants used their cell phones to text codes found when they discovered secret capsules hidden around JPL. Once you texted a code or scanned it with your QR reader, you'd get a trivia question which could be answered by information presented at a nearby exhibit. If you answered it correctly, you'd eventually get a badge. Or at least I think that was the general idea. I'm not really much of a badge person, so I lost interest in the game, but it was fun to watch a lot of the kids in attendance get all excited each time they found a new capsule.
On my way over to Mission control, I stopped at an outside exhibit of rover prototypes which were used to test various elements of the Mars rovers. Had a chat with one of the scientists about his work, and got into an interesting conversation about the need for patience. So many of the projects being worked on are planned for missions far into the future, so you really need to stay focused on what you're trying to accomplish as well as understand the politics of funding.
I ended my Open House experience at Mission Control, aka the Deep Space Operations building. After seeing Mission Control rooms portrayed in so many movies and television shows, it was a thrill to walk in and know this is where we are actually in communication with spacecraft such as Voyager 1 & 2 and the Opportunity Mars Rover. It was also pretty cool to see the room set up where they'd be tracking the landing of Curiosity, the next Mars rover, on August 5th.
Mission Control was smaller and darker than expected. No bright shiny metal. It felt like a warm, dark cave, a place to curl up and listen in to the voices of the universe softly chiming into your ear, whispering of intelligences beyond our Earthly boundaries...
Oh shoot, there' goes my artsy side getting all overly dramatic again...but here are some pics so you can let your own imagination take you wherever you wish...
The spacecraft listed on the left are those that are currently sending or receiving data.
I could have stayed in Mission Control for hours, watching the monitors showing the communications from JPL as well as the NASA facilities in Australia and Spain, listening to the scientists talk about their work. But my time was up, both at Mission Control and at JPL. I took one last pic in front of the NASA signage (did not come out well, so you shall not see it here :), grabbed a hot pretzel for the road, and began my pilgrimmage back to the parking lot and beyond. Thanks to all the scientists and volunteers who answered questions and directed traffic - you made my weekend!