This weekend, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory held its annual open house, inviting the public to explore the grounds of the La Canada-Flintridge facility for two days. This was JPL’s first open house in two years as budget cuts kept the doors shut last year.
Thousands strolled from building to building at the college-sized campus to learn about current missions, future endeavors and poignant reflections of JPL’s history in exploring the final frontier.
“It’s really cool to see how they are able to build and put together the newest things,” said Aaron, who is still in middle school, but already dreams of working at JPL when he grows up. This was his fourth JPL open house.
Open to the public was the famous Space Flight Operations Facility where engineers send and receive messages to spacecraft from Mercury to beyond the boundary of our solar system. If that room wasn’t stunning enough, a quarter-mile walk to the opposite side of the campus was JPL’s Spacecraft Fabrication Facility. It’s a clean room large enough to fit a herd of elephants and is used to build large spacecraft like the MAVEN space probe that entered Martian orbit last month.
Amongst the smell of kettle corn and burger stands were the sounds of “oohs” and “aahs” as a fully operational skeleton version of the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, crawled over rocks posing as a Martian landscape.
Booth after booth displayed vivid photographic images of planets, models of spacecraft, and complex instruments that help NASA engineers peer deeper into our solar system. There was a 3-D printer making plastic rover tires, a smartphone app designed to steer a rover, and an infrared camera showing onlookers the temperature of their skin.
A couple named Raj and Jen stood next to a giant model of a comet that spewed out a tail of water mist. As kids ran around soaking up the relief from the heat, Raj said he was happy to see so many kids. “I think it’s a great public outreach program. It’s almost a dying breed for kids to be excited about science,” he said. Jen was impressed at the amount of mothers and daughters that came to explore JPL’s halls. “I went to UCSD and Sally Ride was one of the professors who taught there and that was really inspiring for me.”
At a booth named “Mars Exploration,” intrepid youngsters were encouraged to lay down shoulder-to-shoulder to become the Martian landscape as a rover the size of a coffee table gingerly drove over them eliciting giggles and screams of wonderment (video below).
If all goes well for JPL, next year the laboratory will open its doors again to young minds hungry for discovery and kettle corn.