If you’re looking for a day (or half day) out today in the greater Los Angeles area, let me suggest a trip up to the Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL). (Details here.) Their open house (held today and yesterday) is rather fun…. you get to learn about some of the grand space missions of yesteryear (like the 1977 Voyager missions… both craft are still actively sending data from beyond the solar system now), or of the moment (like Cassini-Huygens, for example sending wonderful pictures of Saturn and Titan back for us to learn from and marvel at – see e.g. here), or to come soon (like WISE (an infra-red telescope which will help broaden and deepen our understanding of planetary systems, galaxies, and the universe at large), or Dawn (a mission to go and orbit and study two large asteroids).
You can learn lots of things about the science these missions are teaching us about not only far away worlds, but about our own world. There are also missions which are studying earth directly (making observations about our atmosphere, oceans, and so forth), so even if you don’t care about space, there’s something for you.
You can visit special exhibits for each of the missions, talk to scientists and engineers, and even visit the large warehouses where the spacecraft are made, and where they are assembled. There are the control rooms to visit, a dome with giant robots (I’ve no idea about that one), an extra special exhibit about Mars exploration, and lots of stations with all sorts of entertainment for kids! They’ve done a great job providing a lot of material for everyone to take away, including packets of information for teachers to use in their classes too!
I was particularly impressed with how many people were there. There was a huge amount of enthusiasm everywhere and droves of people. I thought I was in a sort of alternative Disneyland for a while there, with long lines here and there to go and see rooms full of, well… lathes, drills, and etching equipment, in some cases. Great! (This was no ordinary etching equipment… and they’d set one giant computer-controlled machine to etch out a nice welcome sign, as you can see below.)… and of course, to see models of real spacecraft, robots, and even more excitingly (he says, eyes twinkling) real scientists and engineers!
For a while, I was worried that it was essentially just tech-minded parents who brought their children or partners/friends along – and yes, I do thing that there was a lot of that, as I could tell by random listening to somebody breathlessly explaining things to the people they were with in a little more depth than is normal for a random person off the street (even for the Pasadena region and surrounds). I would have liked to have seen/heard from a broader cross section… maybe some people coming to this out of curiosity and then coming away feeling that they had fun and learned a lot, perhaps to their surprise. I imagine that this occurred too, but given that this is not hugely advertised around the city (as far as I could see), I wondered who was missing out on this…. As I left the compound to head to the car park (I stayed only for two hours… I did not see everything, but got a good sense of everything… and besides, I had a hot date – see below) I pondered all this… and then I heard a voice calling out to me:
“Dr. … It’s Dr….. Dr… you spoke to us in the church… about science….”
“Yes! Dr. Johnson! You came and spoke to us at the Overcomers Church of Christ about science. Last year!”
Wow. I’ve never been recognized like that before. Indeed, it was a woman and her young (maybe five year old?) daughter from the church that day in April 2006 when I went along to give a…. sermon (kind of) about science and science careers…. in a church in South Central LA. (Read more about that here, if you like; I think the little girl in one of the pictures there is the little girl of today.) I remembered the woman too, and she reminded me of her name: Camille, a journalist. She’d heard about the open house, and decided to bring her daughter along. She’s not a scientist or technician bringing her daughter to JPL. She’s a general member of the greater Los Angeles community, and she heard about it and decided to come. It’s likely that there were very many other cases like this that I don’t know about. (Maybe even school trips from schools that were from further away that the local nieghbourhood?) Anyway, there you go cvj, perhaps you should stop worrying so much.
Anyway, my hot date? There are two other major reasons to head up to JPL on a weekend day. One is the fantastic swoop of a drive up the 2 highway from where it connects to the 5 up to where you get off for the 210. Breathtaking and exhilarating, every time. The other? The mountains, which were beckoning saucily to me the whole time I was wandering around JPL’s grounds. At some point there came a point when I’d seen enough to know they’d done a good job of the open day…. It was time to head to into the Angeles National Forest, change into shorts and boots, and lose myself in the semi-wilderness for the rest of the afternoon. A date with the (indeed hot) outdoors…