What Is JPL?
Despite its name, Jet Propulsion Lab does not build jet engines. It's the leading U.S. center for robotic exploration of the solar system. It became more popularly known lately from the movie and the book The Martian where a stranded astronaut Mark Watney recovers a JPL robot Pathfinder to re-establish his communication with Earth. Smarty, however, learned about JPL earlier by reading and re-reading a book The Incredible Adventures of Spirit and Opportunity by Elizabeth Rusch.
How to Get a Tour of JPL
JPL is a NASA research facility and it offers free public tours. The challenge was to "catch" NASA offering them on their website early in the year as they tend to book up very quickly. They are also quite popular - we had a crowd of about 70 people on our tour, but the tour was divided into two smaller groups, so Smarty could still see everything and ask her questions.
What Did We See?
The tour started in the conference building where we were given an overview of history of JPL and watched a short documentary about robots exploring our solar system. Then we went to JPL museum where visitors can see replicas of actual robots. But the best part came later when we visited an Assembly Building and watched new Mars Rover 2020 in early phases of construction. We learned about clean room and precautions workers take to ensure they don't care static electricity on their clothes. Now Smarty wants to come back in 2019 to check on the construction progress :)
The tour ended with a visit to a real mission control center where JPL scientists track their spacecrafts. We were explained that normally the center is pretty empty unless there is a big event like first orbit entry or, of course, landing. We also learned about global communication system tracking our robots 24x7. It was really fascinating to see these things for real and not just on TV!
Smarty loved a chance to visit JPL. Her only disappointment was that the tour was only two hours. She asked a lot of questions including a question on what one needs to study to come and work for JPL. I have to say that the tour guide gave a bit of a condescending response saying that everybody is needed here, even people who are studying English. Smarty told him that she plans to study math in college, and he looked a bit taken aback. He self-corrected then and told her that they always need mathematicians for orbit calculations. I am very curious to see if Smarty indeed comes back one day as an intern or an employee. Mothers can dream, right?
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