"Welcome to Our Universe" is a friendly sign posted at the entry station to Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Once past the litmus test of proper government-issued identification, a complex of buildings very like a college campus (and so it is - CalTech) with gentle landscaping and outdoor gathering areas welcomes you to this brain trust of the space program. Picturesquely located in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles, visitors may be lulled by the laid-back California vibe of the professorial types employed by JPL, but once inside, a much grander claim emerges on a plaque mounted inside the Space Flight Operations building at Mission Control: "The Center of the Universe." The justification? JPL Mission Control manages all spacecraft communication via the Deep Space Network. Since all messages to and from space are routed through here, JPL must be the Center of the Universe. How did I get to the center of the universe? I applied for a NASA Social event and you should too.
NASA has embraced social media wholeheartedly as an effective way to reach a large audience, and they are killing it. Utilizing all forms of media, they are on a mission (pun intended) to spread the word about the space program to anyone who will listen. With blogs, chats, NASA TV, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, Flickr and 122 Twitter accounts (not counting astronauts!), NASA has made excelllent use of the public relations capability of social media. And what is the first rule of good social media? Create quality content. So Back in 2009, NASA's News and Social Media Manager at JPL, Veronica McGregor, hit upon the idea of NASA Tweetup events which have since become NASA Socials. Hosted at NASA facilities across the country, NASA Socials invite ordinary citizens to become a VIP of the space program - if only for the day. My first application for a NASA Social resulted in my first participation and I hope it won't be the last. Along with 49 other superlative space geeks, I was handed the keys to the kingdom at two of California's NASA facilities: Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena for a day and the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex on the Fort Irwin military base for a second day during the #DSN50 celebration of the 50th anniversary of NASA's Deep Space Network. To introduce us to NASA Social and each other on the first day, they let us hang out in Mission Control at Jet Propulsion Laboratory where we promptly wrangled our devices so we could tweet and post about how excited we were to be there. After all, this was the very room where JPL engineers guided the Curiosity Rover to its landing on Mars in 2012!
The morning program consisted of presentations by JPL engineers, scientists and administrators of the Mars Science Laboratory (rovers), Cassini Project and Deep Space Network, and the JPL Visualization Producer. We even heard from Bobak Ferdowsi, the engineer that rose to fame during the Curiosity landing as NASA Mohawk Guy. The program was broadcast live on NASA TV (viewed by 9 million people so far!). We learned many things about the wonders of the Deep Space Network, such as:
- Voyager I is 18.99 billion miles away and the network still communicates with it regularly.
- The DSN is currently tracking 33 active spacecraft from countries all over the world except China.
- Peanuts at mission control are a JPL tradition ensuring mission success since 1957.
Though Mission Control at JPL is indeed the center of the universe, we left our posts in capable hands to tour the rest of the facilities including the Mars Yard, the Spacecraft Assembly Facility and the visitor center museum. At the Mars Yard, we were introduced to the rugged terrain of Mars and Curiosity's earthbound twin, Maggie. An exact replica of Curiosity, Maggie the rover practices maneuvers as if she were on the surface of Mars for more tests and the possibility of troubleshooting any issues that Curiosity may encounter many millions of kilometers away.
Haven't you always wanted to visit a building marked Spacecraft Assembly Facility? To be honest, I was a little too giddy to pay much attention to what our very knowledgeable guides were saying about the craft being constructed because Spacecraft! and Science! It looked exactly as a spacecraft assembly facility should and was referred to as "the clean room". We weren't invited inside, but instead watched from the observation deck as people built things to launch into space.
I know a thing or two about visitor centers and JPL has a good one with dazzling science displays. But what made our visit so memorable was getting the VIP tour from engineers Randii Wessen and Todd Barber. Since I had occupied Todd's seat at Mission Control, I felt an immediate kinship, but both men made an indelible impression with their passionate presentations. The enthusiasm for their work at JPL was heartfelt and contagious. They covered a mind-boggling array of NASA JPL science in a relatively short amount of time.
And with that, Day One of NASA Social #DSN50 was over. Whew! Like I told the group several times - it was wonderful to be with my people. People who take photos of everything, people who are space geeks like me, people who share their geekiness on social media. I met many lovely people that day, including NASA Social team members Veronica McGregor, Courtney O'Connor, and John Yembrick. You'll find the rest of the NASA cast of characters below. In addition to the NASA team, my fellow #DSN50 spacetweeps were just as lovely and I spent the following day with them in the Mojave Desert at Goldstone DSCC - so look for more about the crew in the upcoming Day Two post.
Stephanie Smith, JPL Social Media Team
Shannon McConnell, JPL DSN Outreach (our tour guide on the bus tour and she took the group photo)
Jeff Osman, JPL DSN Project office (our tour guide on the bus and at the dishes)
Alice Wessen, JPL Solar System Outreach lead
Leslie Cunkleman, Goldstone Outreach team
Marie Massey, Goldstone Outreach team
Kate Squires, NASA Armstrong Center social media specialist
Jaime Catchen, MSL systems engineer (our tour guide at the Mars Yard)
Randii Wessen, JPL project formulation (our tour guide at the JPL museum)
Todd Barber, JPL propulsion engineer (our tour guide at the JPL museum)
Peter Waydo, SMAP engineer (our tour guide at the Spacecraft Assembly Facility
John Wirth, RapidScat engineer (our tour guide at the Spacecraft Assembly Facility)
Jet Propulsion Laboratory: Junk in the Trunk!!!