Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Tour – Pasadena/La Cañada Flintridge

… Where No Spacecraft Has Gone Before!

Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Tour – Pasadena/La Cañada Flintridge

One can’t talk about the “Space Age” without including the major accomplishments and innovations created by the brilliant minds at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s research facility.  That’s why I was so excited to be able to recently visit this historic complex that manages NASA’s Deep Space Network, and it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and informative tours I’ve taken … anywhere!

JPL’s tours are so popular that it took me five months from securing my reservation until I finally got to take the tour.  During our 2 1/2 hours, I learned about JPL’s history, the spacecraft that were developed here and its out-of-this-world missions.  JPL is the leading U.S. center for robotic exploration of the solar system.

While there, I toured the JPL Museum, where you learn about the planets and observe up-close replicas of some of JPL’s greatest creations.  I was also able to witness the construction of the Mars Rover that will blast off to the Red Planet two years from now (Matt Damon will not be aboard) …


… and sit above Mission Control where so many of the United States’ most famous space moments were celebrated.

Before parking, I made a stop at the Guard Gate.  Fortunately the security department had given me prior clearance (guess my second grade chewing gum incident has been expunged from my record).  Parking (and the tour) are free.  It seems NASA has a charter that mandates public outreach, so we, the public, reap the benefit.

Our group met at the Visitor Center for the 1 p.m. tour.  In true, wimpy Southern California tradition, while there were scheduled to be 50 people on the tour, only 14 hardy souls showed up on this rainy …ok, it was barely sprinkling … afternoon (by the way, 95% of the tour is inside). They don’t know what they missed (well, unless they read this).

First stop was the Theodore von Kármán Auditorium for a short movie.  von Kármán is commonly regarded as the outstanding aerodynamic theoretician of the 20th century and helped found JPL in 1944.

Before stepping in the auditorium, I passed by a replica of Explorer 1, the first successful satellite launched by the United States, in January of 1961. JPL planned, built and helped launch Explorer. The U.S. was now officially in the space race, and the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) was set in motion by these events.

Before starting our movie, the two guides imparted some insight on how this all began.  The most interesting part of that was of a rather crazy (but ultra-smart) group nicknamed the “Rocket Boys” or, more commonly, the “The Suicide Squad.”  Three guys who liked to play with explosives (Frank Malina, Jack Parsons and Edward Foreman) set off a homemade rocket on Halloween 1936, the “unofficial” beginning of JPL. (Below photo from 1936 shows Rudolph Schott, Apollo Milton Olin Smith, Malina, Forman and Parsons … aka the Suicide Squad. – photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.)


von Kármán, who was director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT), invited them to the school to continue their experiments, but after a “detonation that launched a piece of a gauge straight into one of GALCIT’s walls,” they were asked to find a place in the Arroyo Seco to continue their damage, ahem, experimentation.  Thanks to funding from the National Academy of Sciences, it eventually led to JPL’s formation in 1944. (photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

Aside: If you get the chance, read more about Jack Parsons (I know I am), an intriguing character to say the least. Not only was he a Rocketeer and chemist, but also an occultist who was eventually expelled from JPL.  The U.S. government funded him during World War II to defeat Germany, he formed what one website said was “an explosive friendship” with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, and was a man who espoused some wild sex theories.  This is a movie begging to be made.

The 37 year-old Parsons was killed in his Orange Grove Avenue office in 1952 by an explosive. (From Wikipedia: “His right forearm was amputated, his legs and left arm were broken and a hole was torn in the right side of his face.”)  Although the police said it was an accident, many people believe he was murdered.  Quite a complex individual indeed.

The movie describing the planets, asteroids and missions to explore them turned out to be quite interesting, but I could sense the audience was more fascinated by what was located inside the theater … replicas of some of JPL’s rovers.  So was I.

There was a 1/2 scale version of Cassini, which was a joint endeavor of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. It began orbiting Saturn in June 2004. I don’t know the designer of Cassini, but I hear it wasn’t Oleg. (The orbiter was actually named for Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini who discovered Saturn’s ring divisions and four of its satellites.)

Next to Cassini is a 1/4 scale of Huygens Probe that Cassini successfully delivered to a soft landing on Titan … Saturn’s largest moon.


Now it was time to check out Juno, NASA’s spacecraft that launched in 2011 and is exploring Jupiter.  It was the first Jupiter orbiter to get a good look at the planet’s poles.

On the other side of the room, Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) is a future mission that will make the first global survey of Earth’s surface water. It is a joint effort of NASA and CNES, the French space agency.  JPL is developing the instrument technology.

Finally, there stood a very large spacecraft … and a famous one at that. The twin Voyager spacecraft were launched in 1977 exploring the vistas of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.  After more than four decades, these spacecraft are still journeying toward the farthest reaches of our solar system — boldly going where no spacecraft has gone before!

An interesting addition to Voyager included a Golden Record. Two phonograph records were included on the flight containing sounds and images showing the diversity on planet Earth.  The contents of the record were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by Carl “Billions and Billions of Stars” Sagan (photo on right from internet).  Included on the record are recordings by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Chuck Berry (Johnny B. Goode), Blind Willie Johnson and 115 other images and natural sounds (surf, wind, thunder, animals, etc).  No Moody Blues … blasphemy!


Across the hall from the auditorium we stepped into the JPL Museum, where we received even further spaced-out information from displays of all the planets, asteroids and the Sun.

There were also miniature displays of spacecraft conceived at JPL …


… including Mariner 10 that traveled to the “scorched inner planet Mercury” in the 1970s.

Yep, that’s a Moon Rock.

Suddenly, I was staring at a sign that stated “King Of The Gas Giants.”  How did they know I’d just had a breakfast burrito?  Actually, the king of the gas giants is Jupiter (its atmosphere is made up of mostly hydrogen gas and helium gas), and I wondered if Voyager had the opportunity to shoot down some Tums to the fifth planet from the sun as it passed by.

Speaking of Jupiter, there stood Galileo, not the astronomer, but the full-scale sized replica of the spacecraft that orbited (the first to do so) and studied that planet.  It was also the first spacecraft to send a probe into Jupiter’s atmosphere.

I then made the mistake of gazing at myself in infrared light, where I looked eerily similar to a crazed serial killer clown.

Finally, I came around full circle to the life-size model of the Mars Exploration Rover, which landed on the Red Planet in 2004.

Next, it was off to the Spacecraft Assembly Facility, where JPL’s magic is put to work.

We were told by our tour guide that JPL is now working on the Mars 2020 Rover, which will further explore the planet.  It is as yet unnamed, but there will be a contest among school children later in the year.  He told us the story of the 8-year-old kid who won for naming “Curiosity,” and let me just say, the perks for the winner are phenomenal.

The people work in what our guide described as “bunny suits,” but not the kind you see at the Playboy Mansion.  These workers have to be clean and pristine when they are doing their jobs in this sterile environment.  From its website, “First, a shoe cleaning machine’s vigorous brush removes loose particles. Next, an air shower, which resembles an ordinary stall shower, blows contaminants from clothing. A door on the opposite side of the shower leads to the robing room. There, a sticky mat removes any remaining particles from the shoes. Depending on the current cleanliness requirements of the cleanroom, individuals will either don a full “bunny suit” which covers nearly the entire body, or just a robe, a cap (shower cap-like hood for hair) and shoe covers. Men with facial hair must wear masks.”  God forbid you have to go to the bathroom while working.

Those insignias on the wall denote the missions that JPL has been a part of through the years.

In a few minutes, we checked out a full scale model of the largest rover ever sent to Mars … Curiosity.

Thanks to its mission, scientists “discovered an ancient lake and a groundwater environment that offered conditions needed for life.”  It took 8 1/2 months to reach Mars on August 5, 2012.  Our guide also told us a funny story about Curiosity’s tires … I’m not giving it away … you’ve got to go on the tour.


Fortunately, no cat was in the area when Curiosity landed.

We also took The Pulse of live communications between more than 30 interplanetary spacecraft and the Deep Space Network.

We walked in a deluge (well, there was a drip from a tree branch) to the Space Flight Operations Facility, aka Mission Control.

Upstairs, we entered a room overlooking the Charles Elachi Mission Control Center.  (Elachi was director of JPL from 2001 – 2016 and vice president of Caltech.)  Since 1964, this area has been manned 24/7.  It was pretty cool to be looking at a spot you see so often on the news when major space events occur, and where, in real-time, we were watching spacecraft circling far away planets. I felt a little like Mr. Spock, which was, of course, illogical.  By the way, this is the unofficial “Center of the Universe” (your tour guide will tell you why).


Our guide also recounted some bittersweet moments like the end of the Cassini mission. It spent two decades in space exploring Saturn and its moon Titan (remember we saw it earlier).  Launched in October of 1997, Cassini finally plunged into the planet on September 15, 1997. Although a massive success, more than a few tears were shed in Mission Control when Cassini’s end was confirmed.  (There is a short video of the moment on Youtube.)

On the lighter side there are peanuts … and not just any peanuts, but “lucky” ones.  The “Good-Luck Peanuts” story starts in 1964 when JPL incurred six failures in attempting to get Ranger on its flight to explore the moon’s surface.

On the day of the launch of Ranger 7, Dick Wilson, mission trajectory engineer, passed out peanuts to “take the edge off the anxiety in the mission operations room.”  Ranger 7 and subsequent Ranger flights were a success, so count on peanuts being in JPL’s Mission Control during every major space event.

From JPL’s website, “On a few occasions, the peanuts didn’t make it for launch day. In once case, the spacecraft was lost soon after launch. In another, the launch was delayed for 40 days, and only took place after the lucky peanuts were delivered to the mission team.”

On that note, the tour was over … the quickest 2 1/2 hour tour I might have ever been on in my life. Our guides dispensed enlightening information in an entertaining manner, and it turned out to be one of the most illuminative tours I’ve ever taken. Did I tell you it was free?

However, if you want to take one of these tours (and you really should), you have to go on the JPL website (below) and see when they are available.  As stated, I had to wait five months for mine.  When you see a date you like, choose it fast … they fill up fast.

On the way out of the Space Flight Operations Facility, I decided I needed to get “lucky,” too. I stopped for a photo with those lucky peanuts …

…so I could embark on the most dangerous mission of all … driving home on the freeway.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory
4800 Oak Grove Drive
Pasadena, CA 91109
Phone: 818.354.4321

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